IN DAHL’S FOOTSTEPS
On the eve of arrival in Australia, meets the production’s unsung hero, Dennis Kelly, the writer who brought Roald Dahl’s classic to the stage
In Dennis Kelly’s first play, a suburban father crucifies himself in the family living room while his two children watch. In his second play, one character knocks out another’s teeth with a hammer. In his eighth, a man methodically breaks the arm of another. From infanticide and race hate to terrorism and white-collar corruption, the British playwright is on intimate terms with damaged psyches, malevolent interior landscapes, and all manner of murky moral ambiguities. He once quipped that “people are shocked when they meet me. I think they expect me to kill a cat in front of them or something.”
Little wonder, then, that Kelly, 44, was as surprised as everyone else when the Royal Shakespeare Company approached him about adapting Roald Dahl’s classic 1988 children’s novel Matilda into a stage musical. Craft a libretto out of a beloved tale of a precocious, lonely five-year-old who scoffs Dickens and Dostoyevsky like boiled lollies, and her empowering fight for love and recognition in a world full of human gargoyles?
Why not, he recalls saying brightly to the RSC, though quietly bemused he’d been approached by the august company. “I thought I was a strange pick. I was, like, I haven’t even written a f..king musical before,” he recounts cheerfully, his ripe, glottal-stop heavy north London accent vibrating down the phone line late on a Wednesday evening in London. “It was a risky move but the RSC went for it.”
A potty-mouthed, charming night owl (“I hated going to bed as child, I still do”), Kelly is all quickfire verbal riffs and sparking synapses despite the late hour. He hops nimbly from Matilda to the astounding plasticity and sharpness of children’s brains (“we imagine they’re idiots, but they’re like adults, just shorter”) to a rising tide of social and political malaise he detects across Britain. There are bridges built, in a blink of an eye, from the importance of sincerity in political theatre, to his struggle with Italian lessons (“bloody difficult”) to how sobriety has gifted him his writing career — he’s a former alcoholic.
All is grist for the furiously whirling Kelly mill, from the importance of subsidised theatre in Britain, to nurturing creativity in education, business and politics. “Creativity is not just about making up pretend people and putting words in their mouth. It’s the same impulse that
June 20-21, 2015 split the atom and put man in space and comes up with ways of imagining things differently to how they currently are in the political system. It is such an invaluable thing but sometimes we think it’s not important.”
For the playwright, screenwriter and accidental musical theatre star, taking a creative view of unexpected job offers (“I thought, why not tackle Matilda — like Dahl, I don’t see the difference between something being tragic and something being funny,” he has said) has paid off in spades. Matilda has been one of the biggest success stories in recent musical theatre history, sweeping all before it since it debuted in 2010. Deftly directed by Matthew Warchus ( God of Carnage), and featuring a visual feast of a set by Rob Howell (think huge alphabet blocks and giant swings), a slate of big, juicy and often hilariously satirical songs by Australian comic and composer Tim Minchin and a sparkling cast headed by the brilliant Bertie Carvel as the Olympic hammer-throwing, sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, it opened at the Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon for a 12-week run before its West End debut in 2011 followed by a $16 million transfer to Broadway in April 2013.
Critics raved, saluting it as an anarchic, poignant, joyful, and occasionally gleefully nasty revenge fantasy for nerds. Kelly’s book and Minchin’s music slyly skewered everything from the deification of children (it opens with pint-size terrors singing “My mummy thinks I’m a miracle! My daddy says I’m his special little guy!”) to a growing culture of anti-intellectualism (Matilda’s deliciously vulgar, ballroom-dancing mother Mrs Wormwood’s tart mantra is “looks, not books”) to the power of words and ideas to act, as The New York Times’s Ben Brantley put it, as “weapons of defence, attack, and survival”. Time magazine called it the best British musical since Billy Elliot: “Matilda seems to clear away the deadwood and announce a fresh start for the Broadway musical.” It won an unprecedented seven Olivier Awards in 2012 and broke box office records on both sides of the Atlantic.
Minchin’s musical brilliance dominated the spotlight: it’s hard to go past numbers like All I Know I Learnt from Telly, a spiky ditty to popular culture’s growing stupidity (“Endless content, endless channels / Endless chat on endless panels / All you need to fill your muffin / Without having to really think or nuffin”). But Kelly,