Matilda The Musical, Roald Dahl’s classic tale first brought to the stage back in 2010 by the RSC, remains a brilliant introduction to live drama for young people

Words Libby Norman

This is a really good time to go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical. Not only is the feisty, clever and rather weird heroine one of those characters that children instantly get, but there’s going to be an even bigger fan base once the Netflix family blockbuster is released just in time for the Christmas season. The trailers reveal that Emma Thompson is a shudder-inducing Miss Trunchbull who tosses children miles – you don’t have to be a bookie to predict a run on tickets for the West End show in the New Year.

The RSC has already turned its mind to the new crop of fans, recently updating its bank of educational materials to help teachers plan a proper theatre outing. The programme includes pre- and post-show resources that explore theme, characters, plot and the creative process of turning a much-loved book into a show. These usefully explore themes relevant across Drama, English, Music and even PHSE curriculums.

Marvellous Matilda
The drama on the stage is engaging and very funny, and the young cast act their socks off. Matilda The Musical photos: Manuel Harlan

From September, the RSC also reintroduced its in-person workshops at Cambridge Theatre, giving school groups the opportunity to go behind the scenes and learn more about the dramatic process. Sessions are modelled on the way real actors get to grips with productions, albeit tailored to age and stage. This is part of the RSC’s education remit, through its Associate Schools Programme. Here, it engages with schools up and down the country, targeting areas of structural disadvantage and trying to promote not only Shakespeare, but also the whole life-enhancing experience of live drama. 

“The young American sitting next to me was an excellent study. He drank in the action on the stage as voraciously as he monstered his popcorn”

The RSC’s Director of Learning Jacqui O’Hanlon has no doubts of the benefits to children and young adults. “Our own research shows that our approaches to learning support development of reading and writing skills, accelerate language acquisition, foster well-being, tolerance, empathy and resilience,” she says. “They also promote critical-thinking, creative, analytical, communication and problem-solving skills.”

But the play’s the thing (to borrow a good line, somewhat inappropriately, from Hamlet), and with Matilda The Musical the RSC really did strike gold. Netflix was smart enough to base its forthcoming film on the original, with the stage musical dream team of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin reunited on writing and music and Matthew Warchus directing. It was Warchus who brought the show to life originally at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 2010, where it picked up the Critics Circle Award before transferring to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre in 2011 and then the Schubert Theatre in New York after that. Critics have loved it at every staging – it gathered seven Olivier Awards in London (then a record for a single show) and five Tony Awards in New York, including Best Book of a Musical for Dennis Kelly. It has since proved a hit across the world and with far too many gongs to list.

Marvellous Matilda
Children instantly get Matilda, the feisty, clever and rather weird heroine of the story

Never mind critics, it is children who count as audience members and their enthusiasm makes it a brilliant family entertainment (the RSC recommends it for 6+). Attending a recent evening performance, I found the excitement among the mixed-age junior crowd made the whole atmosphere electric. I didn’t have a child in tow, but the young American sitting next to me was an excellent study. He drank in the action on the stage as voraciously as he monstered his popcorn, concentrating intently and laughing at all the jokes bar one – leaning across to ask me politely what knickers are (Miss Trunchbull had a newt in hers at the time).

Of course, the whole point of Matilda The Musical is that children rule – it is absolutely their show. On stage, they are the smart ones, dealing with wicked, stupid and bullying adults (with a few honourable exceptions). They have the marvel that is Matilda. (There are several Matildas at any one time – Maisie Mardle was our diminutive heroine, and she was super talented.) The brilliant supporting cast of children are funny and act their socks off. They have the best lines, the snappiest songs and by far the coolest dance moves.

The R S C's Matilda The Musical At The Cambridge Theatre, London Photo By Manuel Harlan
Matilda The Musical is a whole-family pleaser – and the RSC’s extra learning resources help children engage with theme, plot and staging

Matilda The Musical may be pretty much a teenager in show years, but its universal appeal, and the sharpness of writing and design, means it still feels fresh. In fact, I left thinking that you’d struggle to find a more satisfying introduction to live theatre for kids from 6 to 16. Adults love it too, which is not always a given with West End shows. Long may the revolting kids of Crunchem Hall add fun and beautifully acted anarchy to the West End stage.

* The RSC’s Matilda The Musical is at Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, WC2, with bookings now being taken until May 2023. Expanded resources for schools are on the show website;

Further reading: Cressida Cowell on the magical powers of reading for pleasure