Playwright Dennis Kelly

Playwright Dennis Kelly talks about his work on MATILDA THE MUSICAL and what it means to be taking the musical out on tour

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that Dennis Kelly had never written a musical before MATILDA THE MUSICAL. Best known for his work in television and film, the British writer admits he was shocked when Jeanie O’Hare at the RSC first approached him about adapting Roald Dahl’s classic for the stage but it was a risk that paid off. Since its opening in 2010, MATILDA THE MUSICAL has won seven Olivier Awards including Best New Musical, as well as five Tony Awards including the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical.

Inspired by Dahl’s beloved book, MATILDA THE MUSICAL tells the story of a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis, who overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school and helps her teacher to reclaim her life.

Following its overwhelming success in London’s West End, MATILDA THE MUSICAL is now heading out on a year-long UK tour. Ahead of its run at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, writer Dennis Kelly talks to Theo Bosanquet about the challenges of writing a musical and what it means to be taking MATILDA THE MUSICAL out on tour.

It’s been nearly eight years since MATILDA THE MUSICAL premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon. What are your favourite memories of bringing it to the stage?

I mainly remember it being a laugh. We did a series of two-week workshops in the RSC’s rehearsal rooms, and we had so much fun. It wasn’t easy by any means – I’d written a play with holes in, and it wasn’t until Tim Minchin came in that it started growing into a full show. But it was a lovely time and a great learning curve to go on.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as the writer?

The hardest thing was working out the structure. Roald Dahl is a master of his craft, but his craft is books. And a book is very different to a play or musical. For example, in the book Matilda is quite passive at the beginning and doesn’t meet Miss Trunchbull until near the end, so we had to pull that story forward. There were also lots of decisions to make about how to tell the story – whether to have a narrator and things like that.

When did you first realise you had a hit?

The first preview. It was quite different to how the show ended up, but I remember after ‘Naughty’ the crowd went wild. And at the end they were on their feet, which isn’t something I’m used to as most of my plays are really dark. It was a great moment and the first time we realised we were really on to something. But we never took it for granted that it would be a success.

There is a lot of darkness in the story of Matilda; how important was it to retain that in the show?

One of the reasons children like Roald Dahl is because he doesn’t lie. Kids are constantly lied to, but Dahl says ‘life’s hard, and people die, but you can manage’. So we certainly didn’t want to whitewash the story. That being said, there’s obviously a line you have to be aware of. Matthew Warchus, the director, said to me that when adults cry in theatre it’s great, but when kids cry you know there’s something’s wrong. That was a useful thing to bear in mind.

What does it mean to you to be taking MATILDA THE MUSICAL on tour?

It means a huge amount because a lot of people haven’t been able to see it in Stratford or London. We’re taking it to some great theatres, and it’s really exciting to be showing it to a new audience. It feels a bit like when it first opened all over again.

Many girls have played Matilda in the show; what are the qualities they share?

When we cast the role we’re not just looking for ability, we’re also looking at personality. A good Matilda is someone who is open and honest and can express that on stage. We’re also very mindful that they should enjoy their experience in the show, and not be too polished. I remember Matthew giving a brilliant speech to the company just before the children joined, saying ‘we want these children to have a fun time – this isn’t about their careers’. I’m always so impressed by the ability of those young performers.

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

I have a lot, but one that keeps recurring is when Matilda sings ‘Quiet’. It’s just amazing to be among a thousand people sitting in total silence listening to a young girl. It always breaks my heart. I also love when the kids get on the swings during ‘When I Grow Up’ – how can you not?!

How important is it that the show has a positive impact outside the theatre?

Well, it goes right back to the roots of Matilda The Musical, which was developed by a publicly funded charity. This means a lot of the money it makes goes back to support the RSC’s work, rather than to investors. It also means we can put lots of funding into education programmes such as ‘Change Your Story’, which is happening alongside the tour. This feels so important, especially considering Matilda centres so much on the value of education.

Do you think the resonance of the show has increased in recent years?

I think the show’s message is crucial in a climate where creativity feels under threat. There’s also the fact that Matilda is such a good role model for young girls, at a time when they really need her. There was an awful mantra in Hollywood for a long time that girls will watch boys but boys won’t watch girls. Matilda gives the lie to that; we have girls and boys rooting for her equally.

When you were young what did you want to be when you grew up?

I didn’t have a clue. I’m not really from a background where you thought about stuff like that; it was more about getting a job when you were 16. But I somehow discovered books and stumbled into writing. I’d love to say I wanted to by a scuba diver or a fireman but I didn’t really have those kinds of ambitions.

If you could have a magical power, like Matilda, what would it be?

Good question! I should say world peace but I think I’ll go for flying. Who doesn’t want to fly?

MATILDA THE MUSICAL runs at Manchester’s Palace Theatre from 18 September to 24 November 2018