Beauty and the beast
Meets the adult leads of Matilda: The Musical.
Jack van Beynen
Before he goes on stage in Matilda the Musical, James Millar climbs inside a padded suit that gives him a hunched back and huge, sagging breasts. Makeup artists apply a hairy mole to his upper lip. His eyebrows are brushed into a single bushy line.
Millar describes his character, villainous principal Agatha Trunchbull, as ‘‘kind of a monster’’. But that’s what makes her so much fun to play.
Miller has inhabited Trunchbull’s body on stage since the Australian production began in 2015. The first time he saw the show, though, was in London.
At the time he couldn’t see himself playing any of the production’s parts; Trunchbull is not the sort of character anyone is quick to identify with.
‘‘I don’t think she’s the kind of character that anyone looks at and goes, ‘Oh, that’s me,’’’ Millar says.
Physicality is a crucial part of the role for Millar, but he had to make sure his performance wasn’t overpowered by the formidable costume.
‘‘When the costume went on at first it felt like it was eating me up, like I felt a bit claustrophobic inside. But it’s like a second skin now, it actually makes me feel ready to go on the stage, it’s just negotiating a different body.
‘‘Every small physical gesture becomes something different when you’re shaped differently.’’
Millar’s solution to the costume problem is to make all his movements as dainty and ladylike as possible.
‘‘As an actor, if you play the costume you’re sort of landing a double-joke and overdoing it, so I think [it’s better] playing against the whole idea that she’s gargantuan and inside she’s actually a lady, at least in her mind.’’
From the beginning of the show’s intensive audition process, Millar was encouraged to find the truth in Trunchbull’s character and build the rest out from that.
For Millar, that meant thinking about the circumstances that led to Trunchbull becoming a principal who is jealous of her own pupils, and who devises a range of petty and downright sadistic punishments for them.
‘‘I mean, it’s a really sad state of affairs when an adult is jealous of children. So we’re sort of mining that kind of thing and finding out the small, serious elements of her that turned her into this kind of creature. The bitterness and the rage has to come from somewhere that’s truthful.’’
With Auckland the last stop on Matilda’s two-year tour, Millar only has a few more months before he hangs up the Trunchbull suit for good. He thinks he’ll miss her.
‘‘Looking at a person who looks quite different to you, obviously, in costume, and sounds different to you and has different attitudes to you, you sort of become friends with that person, as if they’re not you.
‘‘I remember when I was away from it for like 10 days, I actually found myself missing her... I think spending that much time getting into the mind of someone else, you get used to them as a companion in a really strange way. So I’ll miss her.’’
Lucy Maunder was supposed to join the cast of Matilda the Musical in Brisbane, but she didn’t take the stage until several months later in Perth. The reason for the delay? ‘‘It wasn’t an ideal look for Miss Honey to be seven months pregnant.’’
Maunder’s daughter Edi was just 51⁄2 weeks old when she started rehearsing with the cast.
Despite her extensive experience as a singer and actress, Maunder was ‘‘a little apprehensive’’ when she started. She was concerned that, just weeks after giving birth and with feeding Edi interrupting her sleep, her brain wouldn’t be up to learning the lines and complex choreography the show required.
But with the support of the company, her partner and her mum, she made it work – despite frequent trips backstage.
Becoming a mother changed the way Maunder approached her role.
Miss Honey is an inspirational teacher who becomes a kind of mother figure to the young genius Matilda, who is treated cruelly by her own family. ‘‘This role has taken on a whole different feel for me, and I think knowing how Matilda gets treated in the show, and what happens at the end of the show, is quite emotional and very poignant for me,’’ Maunder says.
Among the many things that Matilda and Miss Honey have in common is the fact that, in this larger-than-life production, they are the only real ‘‘straight’’ characters.
Did Maunder ever worry her performance would be overshadowed by the likes of the formidable Mrs Trunchbull?
She says the contrast of the ‘‘straight’’ characters with the exaggerated ones is part of what makes the production work.
‘‘I think the most important thing is always to focus on the truth of it, and it will stand up because the writing is so strong. With Miss Honey and Matilda, both of them, the writing doesn’t lend itself to larger than life kind of performances, so I think that if it was played that way it would feel contrived.
‘‘As the actor you have to be OK with the fact that your role is not to make the audience laugh, it’s to keep it grounded and keep it real, and then the juxtaposition of the two of them together makes it feel all the more poignant for an audience member.’’
One of Matilda’s themes is the way Matilda’s life is echoed in Miss Honey’s – so it’s fitting that, by bringing Edi to rehearsals Maunder was echoing her own childhood.
Her mother is an opera singer and her father a director, so the first five years of Maunder’s childhood were spent touring with her parents.
‘‘Opera is where I started my life, in my mum’s dressing room when I was the same age as Edi is now,’’ she says.
Edi will cross the Tasman with Maunder when Matilda visits. Maunder reckons they’ll both cope.
‘‘Apart from the obvious sleep deprivation, which is tough – just for my voice, really, because I don’t usually have more than three hours of sleep without waking up to feed in the middle of the night – apart from that, I think you have to mentally prepare, and we did. I always knew that this was going to be what we would do, so you just kind of do what you have to do. And I drink a lot of coffee.’’
Matilda the Musical opens in Auckland on August 18. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.
When James Millar dons the padded suit that gives him a hunched back and huge, sagging breasts to transform into Agatha Trunchbull, it’s like putting on a second skin.
Lucy Maunder plays Matilda’s kind teacher Miss Honey.
Principal Agatha Trunchbull is great fun to play, says Millar.