Beauty and the beast

Meets the adult leads of Matilda: The Mu­si­cal.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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