Skip to main content

Dennis Kelly – Matilda the Musical

Audiences should watch out for the burp when they’re watching Matilda The Musical next week. For writer Dennis Kelly, who co-penned the smash hit adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel about a book-mad five-year-old girl with telekinesis, when the involuntary form of facial flatulence rumbles into life during its month-long Edinburgh run that begins tonight, it’s the perfect example of how a slick main stage show can still feel wonderfully rough around the edges.

“For a big musical, the show feels really theatrical,” says Kelly, who wrote the show with composer and Edinburgh Festival Fringe favourite Tim Minchin. “It is polished, but it doesn’t always feel like it, which is great. To do the burp, we talked about loads of different ideas about how to do it and make it feel as though a burp had just happened, but in the end we went for something really simple, which works in big theatres, but which you could do in tiny spaces as well.”

The sort of spaces Kelly is talking about are exactly where the north-London born writer began his play-writing career after joining a local youth theatre while a teenager working in Sainsbury’s. His first play of note, Debris, was staged at the tiny Theatre 503, situated above a Battersea pub, in 2003. He came to further prominence two years later when After The End was seen at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in a production directed by Roxana Silbert for the Paines Plough Company.

By 2006, Kelly’s BBC Three sit-com, Pulling, co-written with Sharon Horgan, was en route to being nominated for a BAFTA, while his 2009 stage play, Orphans, premiered at the Traverse in a Birmingham Rep production directed by Silbert. The same year saw the National Theatre of Scotland premiere Kelly’s play for children, Our Teacher’s A Troll, while in 20??, Kelly wrote two series’ of the sadly dropped TV drama, Utopia. With such a relatively left-field back catalogue, being approached by the Royal Shakespeare Company, then led by former director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, Michael Boyd, wasn’t really what Kelly expected to happen next.

“When the RSC came to me and said they wanted me to do a musical, I said I didn’t have a clue about how to do that,” Kelly remembers. “I think they knew my work from Debris and Our Teacher’s A Troll, and I wrote about three drafts and then Matthew Warchus came on boards as director. They looked around exhaustively for a composer, and as soon as I spoke to Matthew about Tim Minchin, I think he knew he was the one.”

Minchin is the Australian based performer, whose internationally renowned musical comedy show, Darkside, was an Edinburgh hit in 2005, winning him what was then the Perrier Comedy Award for best newcomer. By the time Kelly and Minchin’s take on the story opened in Stratford in 2010, both had been through an extensive development process.

“We did four of these huge two-week workshops,” Kelly remembers, “and it was a lot of work. I don’t really like workshops, to be honest. I find that stuff hard. The first person I want to hear doing something I’ve written is the actor playing the part, but with something this big you just have to get on with it and do it.”

Kelly reckons the entire process took about four years.

“Someone said to me at the time that was ten per cent of my life,” he says.

Matilda The Musical looks set to last a lot longer than that. Following its West End transfer, the show opened on Broadway, and went on to win seven Olivier Awards – the most ever won by a musical – and five Tony Awards. It has also toured Canada and Australia prior to its current UK tour. Has such international success changed things for Kelly?

“In some ways it changed things,” he says, “and in some ways it didn’t. I’ve had a show on for the last eight years, which feels strange. As a playwright you tend to have a show on, then it closes and another one goes on, so it is different with Matilda, but after all this time I don’t have a lot to do with it anymore. I don’t think I’m a lot of use to it. I used to go in and maybe give a bit of advice, but at some point you’ve got to step back and let them get on with it.

“How I wanted to work didn’t change. It’s not like this was what I was working towards, meeting famous people and swanning round musical theatre or anything like that. I still write grimy little plays, and always have done, and writing Matilda was no different from writing anything else I’ve done.”

Such a down to earth approach is part of Matilda’s appeal.

“There are two things I really like about it,” Kelly says. “The first is Matilda’s inability to accept the status quo, and secondly, she doesn’t whinge about it. A lot of the time in musicals, people say, oh, if only this or that happened, I could have done this. Matilda never really does that. She just gets on with it and sorts things out. I think as well it’s a bit cheeky and a bit naughty as a musical. The great thing about Roald Dahl is he’s rude, and I’m rude as well, and so is Tim, so it all came together because we’re all rude. But apart from anything else, it’s amazing seeing that little girl telling the story, and holding 1,000 people or a couple of thousand people, in the palm of their hand.”

Kelly’s forte charting the adventures of unruly small people has continued with his version of Pinocchio, which he wrote for the National Theatre in London in a production that ran in 2017 and 2018 directed by John Tiffany, formerly of the Traverse and National Theatre of Scotland. In this way, Kelly seems naturally drawn to such fictional trouble-makers.

“Being able to watch someone who is very small overpower someone who is very big, that’s not a bad message,” he says. “I learnt very early on, kids hate things that aren’t fair. If you tell a kid off and you’re wrong, they hate it. There’s something about fairness. In daily life it’s easy to put fairness aside in order to get what we want, and in some ways that sort of thing is happening more, but as far as Matilda goes, I just love the idea that there’s a little girl out there who gets up and sorts things out. We could probably do with a bit of that in the world just now.”

Matilda The Musical, The Playhouse, Edinburgh, tonight-April 27.

The Herald, April 2nd 2019



Popular posts from this blog

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug