Dennis Kelly's adaptation is faithful to both the plot and the dark tone of the book. At heart, this is a story of bullying and abuse and what it takes to triumph over them. Matilda's love of words and her belief in the importance of shaping her own story sees her through but on the way she is pretty roughly handled by life.
Her parents (played with suitably cartoonish glee by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) view their bookish daughter as a nuisance and an affront to their TV-centric world and she is often on the receiving end of some fairly nasty spittle-flecked tirades from her callous dad.
Even more fearsome is the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, a physically imposing former Olympic Hammer Thrower with a zeppelin chest and virtually no neck, who is in the habit of flinging children around by the hair. Trunchbull is played with incredible dexterity by Bertie Carvel. Instead of snarling and screaming, he lapses into terrifying silences, so that each arch of an eyebrow, each quiver of his lip becomes charged with menace. His voice is deliberately, deceptively soft and he moves with an incongruous delicacy. It's a superb piece of stagecraft, a villain that will live in the memory.
By necessity, the younger cast members are on rotation, but Cleo Demetriou was astonishingly good in the demanding title role, mixing steel with sweetness. Lauren Ward's Miss Honey, the teacher who recognises Matilda's gifts, is good-hearted and kind without being insipid and the standard of those playing Matilda's classmates is incredibly high.
Rob Howell's dazzling set, a collage of books and alphabet tiles, spills out beyond the stage, stretching out over the audience, and even spreading into the theatre lobby. Quentin Blake's illustrations are lovingly evoked in the costume design.
Tim Minchin's witty lyrics are well served by Peter Darling's adventurous choreography; one stand-out scene has the cast swinging out over the audience, another evokes the full horror of the dreaded Phys Ed lesson.
The production is at its weakest when the story strays from the original, over-explaining Miss Honey's tragic back story and adding a comedy Italian ballroom dancer, but even this doesn't dull its charm. The magic of Matilda's telekinetic awakening is also strangely underplayed, but for the most part the production remains true to the spirit of Dahl; it's anarchic, nasty, and at times a bit gross -- but also genuinely funny, imaginative, insightful about the way children think and feel,.