Director Matthew Warchus about taking MATILDA THE MUSICAL out on tour and why the story continues to captivate audiences

The multi-award-winning MATILDA THE MUSICAL finally heads to Manchester’s Palace Theatre next month for a three month run as part of a new UK tour.

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.

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.

Following its overwhelming success in London’s West End, Theo Bosanquet talks to Director Matthew Warchus about taking MATILDA THE MUSICAL out on tour and why the famous story continues to captivate audiences today.

What are your favourite memories of creating MATILDA THE MUSICAL?

A few moments stand out. One was when I first read the script – I was working in New York at the time and I remember being mesmerised by it and laughing out loud on many occasions. Another is when we first got the children into rehearsals. Initially, the plan was for adults to play the child roles, but when the children started speaking the lines and performing the songs it was an extraordinarily magical moment. I also remember the first performance we did in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It certainly wasn’t flawless but the response was just rapturous, which was very encouraging.

Were you a Roald Dahl fan prior to getting involved?

I was, though I only really knew Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. I think Matilda was just too late for me. I really loved Dahl’s style but it wasn’t like I read everything he’d written. I made sure I caught up before directing Matilda because I wanted to make sure we were honouring his voice in the show.


There’s a real darkness to Dahl’s writing; how important was it to retain that in the show?

He certainly has a very muscular view of life, largely because his own childhood was quite an ordeal. But I think children really relate to the extremities in his stories because they tend to have extremes of emotion themselves. So it was very important to retain the darker elements of Matilda in our version. Of course, you also want to comfort and reassure children, but if you don’t do it in a truthful way that’s not especially helpful.

What was it about Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin that made them such good collaborators?

Dennis was the perfect choice to write the script because he is used to working with dark material but also has a very strong sense of right and wrong. He really understands how tough life can be, but also how survivable it is. The reason I wanted to work with Tim was because we needed the songs to be written cleverly, and he is a fantastically intelligent songwriter. He’s also mischievous, which really suits the story. I think they’re both rule-breakers, in a really healthy way. They kick against the establishment whilst also being really kind, good people.

One of the most iconic moments in the show is when the cast use swings during ‘When I Grow Up’. How did that come about?

In rehearsals, we tried various things for the song, from roundabouts to skipping ropes, but nothing quite worked. Then we rigged some swings up in the rehearsal room and Peter Darling, the choreographer, spent a few hours working with them. I remember him coming to find me and saying ‘I think we might be on to something’. And he was right; now they’ve become an intrinsic part of the show. I think they really work as an emblem of freedom and defiance.

How excited are you to be taking the show on tour?

It’s both an honour to be in a position to do it, and also a responsibility because we want to ensure that everybody gets the same standard of experience as was originally intended. I grew up in Yorkshire – all the theatre I saw as a child was regionally produced. So it means a lot to me that we’re taking Matilda to new places. We’ve put a lot of effort into making it as special as we can.

What are the qualities that make a good Matilda?

It’s tricky to say because I don’t want to make the girls self-conscious. When we send out the casting breakdown we say we’re looking for children who are small for their age, who are about 10 or 11 years old and have a clear speaking voice. We want girls who are tough; we don’t want simpering, sweet storybook types. Matilda’s a fighter, she’s like a female Artful Dodger. All the girls who’ve played Matilda are remarkable for both their concentration and their courage.


How important is the education programme, Change Your Story, that accompanies the tour?

We take Matilda very seriously in terms of its content and message; we really mean what we’re saying. So when I heard about the RSC’s education programme I thought it was absolutely wonderful. We work really hard on Matilda to ensure the welfare of the children involved. A project like this, which will work with thousands of schoolchildren across the country, is a very good reflection of the values of the production.

What is the most important message Matilda has for today’s world?

Since the beginning, Matilda The Musical has always been an anthem to creative imagination. I think in all aspects it tries to assert the crucial value of creative imagination. It’s this, after all, which sets Matilda free and changes her world. So I think we all need to do as much as we possibly can to argue for the life-changing value of creative imagination.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I had three things. I wanted to work for the forestry commission, I wanted to be a farmer, and I wanted to be a professional canoeist. So I’ve utterly failed in all of my childhood dreams! Though I do now have a kayak.

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

The thing about Matilda is that she isn’t born with magical powers. She only acquires them temporarily as a result of her anger and rage. I think the most magical power she actually has is fearlessness, and I would love to have that. I think fearlessness is a great magical power for all humans to aspire to.

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