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The first ever UK tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company's multi award-winning musical.
Matilda is an extraordinary child, but her parents think she’s a nuisance. When they’re not glued to the television set, her mum practises ballroom dancing and her dad gloats about his latest dodgy business deal. Life at school isn’t much better for Matilda either. Then, one day, she discovers that she’s got very special powers and decides it's high time the grown-ups were taught a much-needed lesson...
Adapted from one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved books, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) stage-musical version of Matilda - complete with music and lyrics by comedian Tim Minchin - has been delighting West End audiences for six years.
A staggering 6.5 million people worldwide have so far seen productions of the critically acclaimed show, which has visited more than 50 cities and bagged an impressive 85 international awards, including 16 for best musical.
“We’re thrilled that our home-grown miracle has grown into a bit of a global phenomenon,” says RSC Executive Director Catherine Mallyon. “It’s fantastic that we can now share Matilda with audiences around the UK and in Ireland. In collaboration with our UK touring partners, we will also deliver a programme of groundbreaking interactive education projects, to enable young people around the country to emulate Matilda, sharing the extraordinary power of storytelling and the boundless creativity of their imaginations.”
In 2010 I had the pleasure of chatting to comedian and lyricist Tim Minchin about a new project he’d been working on with director Matthew Warchus and writer Dennis Kelly.
The said project was a musical version of Roald Dahl’s award-winning book, Matilda. Tim’s enthusiasm for the project was palpable, but in that moment it was just another new show, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as its Christmas offering for that very same year.
I listened as Tim spoke about how much he’d enjoyed the experience but how he’d nearly declined any involvement, citing his busy schedule as the reason.
As for the longevity of Matilda, Tim was edging his bets: “I think it’s too early to say. I guess it needs someone with a big cheque book to come along and make a decision, but I certainly hope that it lives for a long time.”
As soon as the curtain came down on that very first performance in Stratford-upon-Avon on the 9 November 2010, the destiny of Matilda was sealed. The show was a hit. The critics loved it. The audiences loved it more. Word quickly spread about the inspiring story of a super-gifted young girl.
Twelve months on, in October 2011, Matilda opened at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End, where it continues to show to this day.
During the interim years, it has become one of the most successful musicals of all time, smashing records and casting its shadow across some of the world’s most iconic stage shows.
Matilda has now gone full circle and is this month coming home to the Midlands for a 10-week run at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
Tim, Dennis and Matthew still have an active involvement with the show, and the RSC’s creative team are completely involved, ensuring the production remains very much as the Company intended.
Indeed, as Catherine Mallyon, Executive Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, recently pointed out, there have been very few changes to the show, regardless of where in the world it has been presented.
“There are changes which may be noticeable, depending on how well you know the production. These have to be made to adapt the show to the different venues. There are certain special effects that you can do one way in a particular venue but that need to be done differently elsewhere. The words, the music, the design, the dances, the costumes are still the same.”
Matilda’s universal appeal has seen the show performed to almost eight million people across the world.
“It travels really well,” says Catherine, “although on the North American tour, we found that if it goes to a city where there isn’t that familiarity with Roald Dahl, the audience find it slightly unexpected. They still have an absolutely great time, but you can tell that they’re feeling their way into it.
“When we play it here in the UK, in the States, and certainly in Australasia, the response from people who’ve grown up with Roald Dahl - not necessarily the story, but the style - is amazing. Everybody just falls in love with it.
“Interestingly, on Broadway there were some tweaks made for local audiences. The Escape Artist, as he was called there, is actually known as the Escapologist in other productions. We found that there are certain words which can act as a barrier elsewhere, and therefore we felt we needed to change. That apart, it’s extraordinary to me that that feeling of joy in the audience is the same wherever you see the show. It’s amazing how we all respond (universally) to live theatre.”
The joy of Matilda, with its addictive score, larger-than-life characters - we’re talking Miss Trunchbull here - and uplifting storyline ensures that you never tire of seeing the show. Catherine herself has lost count of the number of times she’s seen it - and almost every time she finds something new...
“It’s a very rich production in that sense. There are so many things to look at, to listen to, to follow. It’s a real feast for the senses.”
Numerous professional and amateur versions of Dahl’s works are regularly performed on stages up and down the country, and a recent big screen adaptation of the BFG received plenty of critical acclaim. So what is it about the author’s stories that make them so appealing to produce?
“They’re all so imaginative and original that you can really scale them up for the stage. The beauty of Matilda is the way that the book was developed by the creative team - in particular by Dennis and Tim - weaving a new story into it and really giving it even more depth of theatricality than the book had in the first place. It’s a wonderfully clever piece of adaptation.
“The fact that it’s been seen by almost eight million people across the world is an interesting stat, but what I love is the story behind that, which is that virtually every one of those people will have had a great time seeing the show. And that’s an awful lot of people.”
Matilda The Musical shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 3 July to Saturday 8 September.
Roald Dahl is famed for his larger-than-life characters - and they don’t come any more formidable than Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, who detests children to her core. A ‘tyrannical monster’, she spends her days intimidating the ‘revolting children’ in her charge - force-feeding them cake and swinging them around the playground by their pigtails.
Historically played by a man, it’s Welsh actor Craige Els who’s charged with bringing this eccentric and bloodthirsty character to life on the Hippodrome stage.
What’s On recently caught up with Craige to find out more about his role...
What’s the best thing about playing Miss Trunchbull?
The role itself is obviously fantastic. It’s a wonderful challenge and a wonderful responsibility to be playing such a notorious villain. Dennis’ script is a joy to perform every night, and I think most of all, I get to work alongside my fantastic tiny little co-stars, who are exceptional in every way. All the adults in the cast would agree that it’s them who keep us going and make us laugh daily. They definitely set the bar energy-wise.
Normally it’s when a cast gets to that six-month point that the energy starts to dip and people get a bit tired. I think having a fresh influx of kids is a reminder that it is, in fact, the best job in the world. They’re all very excited, and it’s a lovely, gentle reminder halfway through a contract that it’s exciting to do.
What personal attributes do you think helped bag you the role?
I think I was the right height. You have to have a certain amount of flexibility to be able to do all of the athletic stuff that Miss Trunchbull has to do, and that was something I could definitely bring to the table. As far as everything else, I think I was just the lucky guy they picked on the day.
What research did you undertake for the role?
All of the research is there in the book itself. Roald Dahl’s descriptions are so brilliant. She’s also very masculine, which is a plus point for me, and you just work through it all in rehearsals. You find the places in the show where feminine touches can creep in, but more often than not, rather than just approaching her as ‘playing a woman’, I try to approach her as ‘playing Miss Trunchbull’. Not necessarily gender specific but more of an ogress.
Tell us about your Trunchformation...
We have a fantastic wigs & wardrobe team, and we’ve now got the transformation down to about half an hour. I do the make-up myself, and then the wigs team come in and put the wig on. Then I slip into the fat suit, and the rest just gets draped over me until she’s complete.
Do you have a pre-show warm-up, to get you into the right mindset to play Miss Trunchbull?
Before the costume goes on, we do a full company warm-up and I do my own vocal warm-up, to try and get myself into the right place for her voice. Then once the costume’s on, I guess there’s about 20 minutes at the start of the show when everyone else is on stage but I’m not. It’s quite handy spending that time alone because in my head she’s a solitary character, quite introvert and complicated, so it’s nice to spend that time alone to check over my lines and get into the right place mentally.
How do you re-find yourself post-show?
The end of the show is so euphoric. The bows at the end on the scooters are all very upbeat and very happy. Once you receive the applause from the audience, that tends to lift you out of any dark humour you might be in. Any residual Trunch is gone by that point.
What’s been the most difficult aspect of her character to master?
I suppose that having played the role for such a long time, the biggest challenge is to ensure that she stays within the parameters of reality and doesn’t become too grotesque; that I never send her up, and that she remains rooted in truth. That’s the biggest challenge; to make sure she stays who she’s meant to be.
And have there ever been any mishaps?
There have been a few. I’ve had warts that have fallen off, and I bit off the hair from one of my moles once, which was particularly unpleasant when you’re still trying to sing a song. I also snapped the ulnar ligament in my left thumb halfway through the big number in the second act, which was particularly grim. I had to have that operated on. That’s probably the biggest serious mishap, but lots of silly things happen all the time. When you’re running around at that pace in that costume, you do take a stumble from time to time. You do get caught up in things; it’s impossible not to.
How did you deal with the thumb incident?
The show went on. I finished the number and then, by the time I got off stage, there was only a short period of time for a quick change before my final scene. They asked if I’d be okay, and by that time the adrenaline had kicked in. There wasn’t time to get the understudy in costume - we would’ve had to stop the show instead - so I went on and did the last scene. Luckily there was no need to pick up any children or spin anyone by the head at that point. It was just me. I finished the show and ended up having a month off while it healed. It’s quite a cool scar, which the kids love.
Do you have a favourite scene?
The big number Smell Of Rebellion in the second act is a lot of fun. It’s one which the audience very much lets you know they’re enjoying as you go along. I’m spoilt really, because most of my scenes are classroom scenes or with all of the kids, and they’re such a joy to perform with. I do love the last classroom scene, where the kids have their uprising and they defeat Miss Trunchbull. That’s always a real fun one to do.
Almost seven years after its celebrated debut at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Matilda: The Musical has evolved into an international phenomenon, holding the joint record for the most Olivier Awards ever won by a single production. Yet remarkably, despite multiple performances overseas, the show has never toured its home country - until now.
In the West End, the show continues to draw excited crowds of kids and grown-ups alike, but next year, families and Roald Dahl fans across the country will have the chance to experience its magic for the very first time. Ahead of its arrival at Birmingham Hippodrome in July 2018, we asked playwright Dennis Kelly and executive producer André Ptaszynski to explain why Matilda has been such a roaring success.
“We all love things that are dark and funny and which really make you feel something, and Matilda has all of those things,” says Ptaszynski. “I think Dahl, Tim (Minchin, composer & lyricist) and Dennis all come from a very similar comic-dramatic world. There's a darkness and a sharpness to the material that we all recognise.”
“For me,” says Kelly, “I think it's mostly the music. The songs are consistently brilliant throughout. Way back in the mists of time, before Tim was on board, they asked me whether I'd be interested in writing lyrics. I thought I'd give it a go, but if they were rubbish, I didn't want to do it because I really wanted this show to work. So when he came along, initially I still had this residual feeling that I might have been able to do it, but as soon as I saw what he was writing, I knew it was way better than anything I could have done!”
For all this emphasis on his collaborator's work, Kelly's own contributions have been equally as vital, from creating brand new characters like Mrs Wormwood's ballroom dancing partner Rodolpho (a favourite with Roald Dahl's widow, Felicity), to a whole new plot strand based around a story that Matilda tells to the librarian, Mrs Phelps.
“In the West End,” says Ptaszynski, “there are just piles of dead musicals with great scores that have failed because of the script, yet this guy who claims to know nothing about musicals comes in and realises immediately that it needed more than just the linear narrative of the book to turn Matilda into the show it is.”
Of course, it helped to be taking cues from an undisputed master storyteller...
“I never really had to think about what Dahl's voice was or anything like that because it's so ingrained in you as a kid,” says Kelly. “At the time, I didn't really know Matilda. I'd read other Dahl books, but I'm a bit older than the generation that grew up with Matilda, so it wasn't until I was already working on the script in a café one day that I realised how much it means to people. I remember the waiter asked me what I was writing, and when I told him, he just went mental! He started quoting from it and telling me how it was his favourite book and how it had inspired him. In that moment, I suddenly thought, 'Why did I agree to this?!' But you can't write with too much of a sense of responsibility because that's not what Dahl's doing. He's writing with relish about burps and mud and all of that, which to me feels very free, so I didn't want to be a slave to it.”
Completing the creative trio at the heart of the show's success is director Matthew Warchus.
“As a director, Matthew seems to be obsessed with putting a piece of theatrical magic in every scene,” says Ptaszynski, “whether it's the dummy falling from the roof or the swings or the school gates.”
“One of the parts I really love is Bruce Bogtrotter's burp,” adds Kelly, “because it's just pure theatre. It's basically just a light moving around the stage, but people are enthralled. In Stratford, we had discussions about things like a balloon blowing up or those guys that blow smoke into bubbles, but in the end, we couldn't do any of that crazy stuff because of the thrust stage. An illusion relies on everyone looking the same way, and if you can see round the back, it's not gonna work. In the end, I think that gave it a slightly homemade feel, which fits in well with the Dahl story. Even though we could have done more in the West End, I like that the original RSC show is still running through the production even now.”
Matilda: The Musical shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 3 July – Saturday 8 September 2018
2010 saw the premiere production of Roald Dahl’s greatly loved children’s book Matilda, at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford. With a stellar creative team, it was never going to run for a standalone season and following a string of rave reviews, Matilda has gone on to win a multitude of awards and has been performed worldwide.
Matilda is based on a five year old child genius who is treated appallingly by her family and so she finds solice in books. The show is closer to the book text than the 1996 film, starring Mara Wilson. There is a massive focus on the powers that Matilda learns she has in the film and although this is touched upon in the stage show, more time is spent on Matilda learning of teacher Miss Honey’s back story which brings everything together.
Rob Howell’s set design is incredibly striking upon entering the auditorium. The proscenium arch is lined with letters on scrabble-type tiles, along with the legs and borders as you progress upstage. There are also moving set pieces tracking on from the sides of the stage in certain scenes, laden sky high with books. Predominantly white, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting injects the colour and is perfection throughout.
Dennis Kelly’s book is a superb interpretation of Roald Dahl’s original text and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics slot in effortlessly. The show is so incredibly intelligent from start to finish and this is down to the strong collaboration between the creative team. Matthew Warchus’ direction is excellent and the choreography by Peter Darling is sensational. Every beat of the music is recognised through the movement and the cast confidently deliver Darling’s vision. The ‘School Song’ is the perfect example of the fusion between direction, choreography and music.
The children involved in Matilda are staggeringly talented. Lara Cohen played the title character for the press night and she amazes with the material given. Also, more than deserving of a mention is Amanda, distinguished by her hair bunches and played by Lyla Toplass. She is expressive, draws attention for the right reasons and gives 110% throughout.
Admittedly, Matilda fully comes alive when Miss Trunchbull is introduced, played exceptionally by Craige Els. His brilliant acting skills and physicality brings the gruesome character off the page and fills the auditorium. Carly Thoms plays the sweet Miss Honey perfectly and her vocals are sublime, particularly during ‘My House’ in Act Two.
Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill play Matilda’s cruel parents; both very strong character roles. Torkia as dodgy car salesman Mr Wormwood is delightfully awful in personality and Thornhill as dance obsessed Mrs Wormwood has an excellent number, ‘Loud’ with dance partner Rudolpho, which demonstrates all of her best attributes.
This production is phenomenal and is one of the best shows Birmingham has seen in years.
Matilda plays at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 8 September and continues to tour until August 2019.
***** Jenny Ell
Full of passion and romance, heart-pounding music and sensationally sexy dancing!
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