From the page to the stage: Matilda's story
Roald Dahl would have been the first to agree that Matilda wasn't the easiest book to write. 'The first half is great' he confessed, 'but I've got now to think of a really decent second half.' He did, of course, and it has since become one of the world's best-loved children's stories.
But if it took Dahl quite a while to finish the book that was as nothing compared with how long it took Dennis Kelly to turn it into a stage show. In 2010, seven years after Kelly was first approached by the RSC to write the book, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, direction by Matthew Warchus, design by Rob Howell and choreography by Peter Darling, Matilda The Musical premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon to overwhelmingly great reviews.
But in those early days, Dennis Kelly wasn't entirely convinced that all would be well. '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' he says. 'But 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 was a lovely time and a great learning curve to go on.'
'The hardest thing was working out the structure' he continues. '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.'
One of the reasons children like Roald Dahl is, suggests Kelly, 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.'
In the eight years since the show opened, there has been a succession of astonishingly talented young girls who have taken on the demanding role of Matilda. But it's not just a talent for singing, acting and dancing that is required.
'When we cast the role' says Dennis Kelly, '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'.'
Besides being a multi-award winning production, Matilda The Musical is special in ways quite unlike other smash hit shows. Developed by a publicly funded charity, rather than lining the pockets of investors, a lot of the profits go back into supporting the RSC's work. 'It means' says Kelly '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.'
So all the time and effort that was spent in bringing Matilda The Musical to the stage was well worth it; not only because it is a razztwizzlingly good show 'as Roald Dahl would say' but also because it fires up the imagination of children all over the country by introducing them to thrill of inventive, magical theatre told through something as simple as a story.
Matilda The Musical runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until 30 June.