Matilda The Musical’s makers on their gleeful antidote to ‘depressing heritage stuff like The Crown’
Matilda’s a nativity story, isn’t it?” says Matthew Warchus. “At the beginning we see a redeemer being born. A child with magical powers who will overturn a brutal adult world and deliver peace and hope and justice.”
The biblical resonances of Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book about bookish, five-year-old Matilda Wormwood, whose telekinetic powers allow her to escape her neglectful parents, defeat her school’s bullying headmistress (Miss Trunchbull) and help her teacher (Miss Honey) reclaim her life, have always been apparent to Warchus, a vicar’s son, who directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda musical, which has been running in the West End for over a decade – and has just turned his stage hit into a glorious new film. On screen, we witness the secular saviour ascend heavenwards in a hot-air balloon as her awed classmates spread the gospel of her righteous rebellion.
Dahl’s story thrills children by giving a wise kid power over stupid adults. Though Miss Trunchbull declares, “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Dahl assured his young readers that they were right about the injustices of the world, and there was something they could do about it. The 2011 musical (with a book by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin) added an irresistible invitation to grown-ups in the audience to connect with what Warchus describes as “the accumulated scar tissue we all carry inside of us”. Adult theatre-goers regularly sob in the show’s most famous number, When I Grow Up, in which the young cast naively imagine that, when they’re older, they’ll have all the answers to life’s questions, and will “be brave enough to fight the creatures/ That you have to fight beneath the bed/ Each night to be a grown-up …”
“It’s a very raw thing, childhood, and Dahl knew that it stays with us,” says Warchus. “As adults, we’re still looking for places where nobody can get us.”
Fidgeting with his socks in a smart hotel, Warchus still has the tentative air of a bright schoolboy as he tells me that it was “the stuff about school being a frightening place that I latched on to, when the RSC first approached me about turning Matilda into a musical. My dad’s job meant we moved around a lot,” he says. “So I was the new kid quite a few times. Having a vicar for a dad, having the wrong accent, being a soft, sensitive boy interested in the arts, it all meant I had a target on my back. There was ear-flicking, punching. I developed a phobia, as a kid, of being in rooms with other people, so I had to have my lessons outside of the classroom for several years. I couldn’t be in any crowded spaces. I definitely had to hide being brainy, being studious.”
Even now, as a father of three, “if I have to go into a school I get …” – he takes deep breaths, miming panic. “It’s very hard. I have tough memories. My wife has to tell me not to bring my s--- into my kids’ lives because they’re enjoying school.”
Dennis Kelly – who, at 52, is a more robust, wisecracking presence – tells me he has enjoyed visiting schools since his 2007 play, DNA, was added to the GCSE syllabus: “I meet a lot of inspiring teachers.” A council estate kid from north London, he left school at 16. “I totally hated it. I was rubbish at it.” A shrug. “I was bullied as well. I got the strap on my arm. It was a brutal, all-boys Catholic school. Violence was normal. We had one teacher who controlled you by picking you up by your sideburns.”
When they embarked on Matilda, both Warchus and Kelly looked back at Dahl’s own childhood memoir, Boy, published four years before Matilda (his final novel) in 1984. “All through my school life,” wrote Dahl, “I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed quite literally to wound other boys, and sometimes very severely.” He describes the sadistic matron sprinkling soap shavings into one boy’s mouth.
The school that Warchus and Kelly created for the film of Matilda is directly inspired by Dahl’s memories, but with a touch of “magic realism”, Warchus tells me. “It’s set in a traditional English village, where Matilda’s parents have a more gaudy, modern house. When it came to the cars, I asked them to get me a mix of things from the 1950s up to the 1980s, when the book was written.”
My nostalgia sonar was pinging in the film at the sight of 1980s climbing frames, chocolate bars and standard-issue blue-grey school crockery. “We had a lot of young people in the art department,” grins Warchus, “and it was quite a challenge describing the colour of the food that was slopped out in 1970s canteens; the mustard-brown mush of peas that hadn’t been green for a very long time. Then when it came to the Phys Ed scene, I wanted to shift things outside into the cold and mud and rain. We all had those awful memories of cross-country runs and freezing, filthy changing rooms.”
While the UK film industry has built a brand peddling stories about well-off British families living in vintage-hued, picture-postcard comfort (think of Paddington, Mary Poppins, Downton Abbey), Kelly finds “all heritage stuff, like The Crown, really depressing to be honest. That’s not what we are, is it? We’re so much other stuff that’s worth celebrating. There’s a whole string to Britain’s bow that isn’t heritage. We wanted some Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in there. A splash of Only Fools and Horses.” Warchus nods. “We did more of that in casting actors who are better known for their social realism, like Steve Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Matilda’s parents.”
When it came to casting then 12-year old Alisha Weir as Matilda, Warchus employed the same technique he uses for casting the stage role (which has now been filled by over 100 girls). “I always imagine the scene in Miss Honey’s shed where the two of them are sharing these deep truths about their lives. But Miss Honey is the child and Matilda is the adult. If you can find a girl who can be the adult in that scene you know you have the right actor.”
Kelly notes that we can all connect to the character of Matilda, “despite how smart and unusual she is. I always think that what Dahl did so cleverly was to give a list of books she reads right at the start, and then he never mentions books again. He tells kids: books are great. But he doesn’t go on about it. He says that even though she was really clever, you would still have liked her. You just have to like to think for yourself. And kids really like thinking. Their brains are all firing off in different ways.”
The only problem with her character is that “she didn’t seem like the kind of kid who would want to be in a musical”, says Warchus. “For months we didn’t have a song for Matilda to sing. She’s a quiet, modest girl who doesn’t need applause. Most lead characters in musicals get an ‘I want’ song, where they sing about what they’re lacking in life. Like Where Is Love? in Oliver. But we all agreed that Matilda didn’t lack anything. She isn’t self pitying, she’s quite self-sufficient.”
Their breakthrough came when Minchin wrote the song Loud for Mrs Wormwood, and balanced it with Quiet for her daughter. Miss Trunchbull – played in the film by a terrifyingly top-knotted Emma Thompson – is screaming at Matilda, and she finds herself able to detach and float away. “Quiet is my favourite moment in the stage show,” says Kelly. “You can always hear a pin drop. When I first heard it, I remember thinking Tim had made music out of silence, which is an incredible achievement.”
That peaceful fantasy is balanced by the brighter daydream of When I Grow Up. “I remember when Tim wrote that song,” says Kelly, “and he told us, ‘this doesn’t fit in anywhere, but it’s the song of the show.’ In the stage show, the kids are on swings, but in the film, their bikes and buses are transformed into bright red motorbikes and Top Gun fighter jets as they make the journey home from Crunchem Hall. It’s a giddy sequence that reminded me of the passage in Dahl’s memoir, about being seven: “My only ambition, my hope, my longing was to have a bike … and to go whizzing down the hill with no hands on the handlebars. It would be fabulous. It made me tremble just to think about it.”
Warchus and Kelly are aware that some people are still calling for Dahl’s cancellation. The author made remarks that were misogynistic and racist, and in particular anti-Semitic. In 2018, the Royal Mint rejected a proposal to mark his centenary with a commemorative coin because he was “associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation”. The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company have publicly apologised “for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
Warchus says he “thought that statement was really good, really appropriate”. Kelly agrees: “I know what they mean about it feeling incomprehensible. When I paddle around in the world of his work, I don’t see any of that. So it’s very strange. But he did say those s---ty things. He did think those s---ty things. You can’t deny it. But what we do now has no impact on him either way, does it? He’s dead.” So if we cancel Dahl, “we just end up losing his stories. Which we don’t want to do, do we?”
As artistic director of the Old Vic theatre, Warchus has form walking away from difficult artists. Last year, the theatre pulled the plug on Terry Gilliam’s planned production of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods – which found an alternative home at Theatre Royal Bath – after members of its emerging artists group voiced concerns over the director’s “previous comments … relating to trans rights, race and the MeToo movement”. Warchus will only say that the situation was “more complicated” than the story Gilliam has given the press.
The pair are also reluctant to be drawn on the controversy over the “fat suit” Emma Thompson wears to play Trunchbull in the film. In the 1996 American film of Matilda (which also starred Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson), Trunchbull was played by Welsh actress Pam Ferris. In the RSC’s stage show, she’s always been played by a man, starting with Bertie Carvel. Now the film is being criticised for casting Thompson in prosthetics, rather than a genuinely plus-sized actress.
Warchus winces when I bring this up. “Well, she is supposed to be an Olympic hammer thrower. She has to be big enough to swing kids around and throw them. She’s got to be part of a David and Goliath story. She is big. We make her about 6ft 5 in the film through platforms and shoes and camera angles. She has to have some bulk and she’s wearing some padding. But personally I don’t think she looks fat […] Those big and complex casting discussions don’t work very well in the media.” But he will say that Thompson was “a joy to work with. She’s a great classical actor, a great comic actor and a great singer.”
Dahl may have been a misogynist at times, but Kelly points out that Matilda has a powerful feminist message. Balancing out the more cartoon women – skinny, hyper-feminine Mrs Wormwood (“a girl does not get anywhere by acting intelligent! I mean, take a look at you and me. You chose books – I chose looks”) and the masculine Miss Trunchbull (“Nasty dirty things, little girls are. Glad I never was one”) – are the more relatable Miss Honey (played on screen by a meltingly vulnerable Lashana Lynch) and the librarian Mrs Phelps (a wide-eyed Sindhu Vee).
Kelly adds that, crucially, “Mrs Phelps listens to Matilda. Normally when a child is telling an adult a story, that adult is zoning out, they’re on their phone. But with this child and this story, the grown-up is utterly engrossed.”
Matilda The Musical is in cinemas now