Now in its 7th year on London’s West End, Tim Minchin’s adaptation of the beloved children’s book is embarking on its first UK national tour, and has now landed at Birmingham Hippodrome.
Matilda is a story that’s all about the underdog; the titular character is an inquisitive and insanely intelligent little girl who is unfortunately saddled with a family that belittles her and discourages her love of books, instead favouring TV, ballroom dancing and selling used cars.
When Matilda starts school, she meets the angelic Miss Honey and discovers a world where she is free to learn, display her talents, and let her imagination run wild. However, there is still one enemy left to defeat – the tyrannical Miss Trunchball (played brilliantly by Craige Els).
The formidable headmistress is a familiar role for Craige, having played Miss Trunchball since 2014, first on London’s West End and now as part of the UK tour. With her deep rooted hatred of children, fierce voice and imposing physique (honed from years of throwing the hammer), Miss Trunchball gives the actors who play her a lot to work with, but as Craige says, that’s all part of the fun.
“She’s fantastic, she is an amazing role to play. It should be on the school curriculum – everyone should have a chance to play Trunchball because she’s so brilliant! It’s one of those once in a lifetime roles, a career highlight for me.”
An added challenge in this role is of course the aspect of a male actor playing a female character, but this is just another element Craige embraces to breathe life into Roald Dahl’s character.
“That’s the challenge, to find nuances of that ogress and that really masculine ferocity, and combine that with the fact that she is a woman, and there is a feminine touch there too.”
Miss Trunchball is no pantomime dame to be laughed at; she’s a fierce bully to be feared by adults and children alike. On stage, Miss Trunchball is nothing short of formidable, dominating each scene with a tension founded by her unpredictability. Craig Els’ performance is able to command the room with even the subtlest of icy whispers, inciting terror even further when escalated to a full blown Trunchball tantrum. Fans of Roald Dahl’s book will of course be aware of the extremes to which the headmistress will go, but even those in the know will be shocked by her cruelty on stage, made even more terrifying when contrasted with the innocence of Matilda’s stellar child actors.
The role of Matilda shall be shared by four actresses for the UK tour – Nicola Turner, Lara Cohen, Annalise Bradbury and Poppy Jones. Though playing the main role is no easy feat, each Matilda seamlessly carries the show with a strength and sincerity that captivates the audience, and this energy is matched by the talented young actors that play Matilda’s classmates, offering welcome bursts of mischief throughout the show.
“Those kids are far better actors than I will ever be!” admits Craige with a laugh. “They work so hard, it’s crazy. They’re on the road, they’re being schooled, they do the show, and they’re away from home for big chunks of time. I couldn’t have done it at their age”.
Another burst of energy comes in the form of the Wormwood family, whose brash, bright home life offers no comfort to Matilda. Sebastien Torkia’s performance as Mr Wormwood is a delightfully malicious example of the toxic home Matilda so wishes to escape. As comical as he is cruel, Matilda’s father fails to see the brilliance of his daughter, belittling her love for books, referring to her as a boy and frequently losing his temper at her. “It’s always fun being the baddie!” claims Sebastien, and there’s a twisted joy to be found in the malice of Mr Wormwood on stage.
Sebastien admits that “There have been some reactions when I shout at Matilda! There have been a couple of gasps from the audience because it is shocking, but that’s the thing about Roald Dahl. He never shied away from the reality of the ups and downs of life”.
This ability to balance the absurd fantasies and cruel realities of Matilda’s story is what makes Matilda the Musical such a wonderful adaptation. For all the fantastical situations Matilda presents, Dennis Kelly’s adaptation never forgets the subtle moments that allow audiences of all ages to connect to the story. The ensemble number When I Grow Up acts as a particularly poignant moment in which children and adults alike can unite in the wish to be “brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night”. As the cast fly back and forth on swings, the euphoria of childhood freedom embraces the audience, and they can once again escape into the imagination of a child, even just for a moment.
“You hear ‘children’s story’ and people often immediately think it’s a family show, but it’s not” Sebastien adds. “It’s not just pure escapism. You’ll come away and it will have touched you and effected you, may even change how you behave in life. And that’s what makes a brilliant show, something that lasts in the memory”.
Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are as intricately crafted as Peter Darling’s expert choreography, both of which find the balance between grotesque cruelty and gleeful delight that is essential in capturing the spirit of Roald Dahl’s novel. The show’s design instantly welcomes you into Matilda’s world with a set formed of hundreds of colourful Scrabble letters, the importance of words emphasised to the audience before the show has even started. Matilda’s love of books offers her an escape from her abusive home life into the worlds of Dickens, Tolstoy and the Brontë sisters, and throughout the show we see Matilda as engrossed in a book as we are in her story.
The UK tour of Matilda the Musical will give audiences across the country a chance to enjoy this beautiful re-imagination of Roald Dahl’s most famous heroine. “There’s a buzz that’s unique to being on tour” Craige confesses, and this is a buzz that Birmingham will enjoy all summer long as Matilda the Musical finds its home here from July.