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Interview with Matilda the Musical's Mrs Wormwood, Rebecca Thornhill
Rebecca Thornhill has been whipping up a storm in the role of Mrs Wormwood in Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre for the past eighteen months. From playing roles such as Madge Hardwick in Top Hat to Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity and Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, Rebecca is a versatile leading lady who is continuing to delight audiences in the challenging and comedic role of Matilda's neglectful mother who has a passion for competitive dance.
We caught up with Rebecca to hear about her experience in one of the West End's most successful musicals and her experience of bringing such as 'revolting' character to the stage.
Dom O'Hanlon: Rebecca, you've been in Matilda the Musical for almost eighteen months – how do you keep your performance fresh and exciting each night?
Rebecca Thornhill: Well you have a different Matilda each night and that changes a lot of things and of course the kids themselves change quite often so that keeps everything fresh – you never know what's coming at you! The audiences are different every night, you never know how certain things are going to land. There's always something that goes right and then it doesn't land the next time.
DOH: Does having the different teams of Matildas help maintain a new energy for you and the rest of the adult cast?
RT: It's a different kind of show with each on because they each bring different things with them. It's a bit like having an understudy on, it changes things and keeps it fresh. You do get very attached - you can't take them all home though! Some of the girls are very quiet and concentrate on what they have to do. They have so much to do so their brains are bursting, and after a while they either get very excited or they go through to a different area where they're very nervous about things and then crack through to the next section. They're all very, very different. We have one Matilda who is bouncing off the walls and has so much energy, and another who is very quiet and sort of concentrated and another one who is totally opposite to that. It's just brilliant – they go through so much and you see them grow up so quickly before your eyes – it's quite extraordinary.
DOH: What's your favourite thing about being apart of such a successful show?
RT: I like listening to the audience's reactions – it's very, very different depending on the audience. You can actually hear them going on the journey. The adults, when you hear them laughing later on, you realise that they get it. You have a serious scene then something funny happens and a kid might laugh out loud on their own – that always gets us on stage, they're so engrossed in it and they're actually laughing out loud. For me being Mrs. Wormwood, an absence of kids is great. When it's an audience full of kids they're all on Mrs Phelps' side and Matilda's side – they hate the Wormwoods! It's actually quite tough when the kids are in because you have to be nasty but also not upset anybody. When you get the older adults in they sort of get the funny side of it and where it's coming from and it's totally different.
DOH: When you first came to the role what did you immediately like about Mrs Wormwood?
RT: The book is so very different so I kind of had to put it down – my character is a very different character. My character is interested in dancing and that was brought in to make it an element of musical theatre, rather than in the book where she loves bingo. All the other characters around me are very similar to the book. The way to be a bad character is to not know that you're being bad – she has to love herself. She's very self indulgent – it's all about her and what she can get out of life. Even her husband, she wants him to bring in the money but for herself – it's a horrible character but you have to like that in order to portray it. It's a bit like being stupid – stupid people don't know they're being stupid – that's what makes them stupid. Ms Trunchbull is the big villain - I am the comedic villain in a sort of harsh way.
DOH: Was it difficult to fall in love with her as a character? What was the most helpful way in to finding her?
RT: The costume and the wigs help completely. Once you've got all that on – I'm sat here with bright pink nail varnish on that glows in the dark – it's very not me! Once I get everything else on, the big hair and the lipstick it all adds to the character and you just delve into that because that's what she is about. It's all about image and herself, once I have all that on it's easy riding after that!
DOH: What's your favourite message that Matilda the Musical shares with its audience?
RT: I like the fact that the adults play children and the children play adults. It reminds you that we were all children once and we grow up – we're all the same kind of people. I love that it shows the intelligence of kids and the stupidity of adults – it shows every aspect of a person's character. I always watch “Revolting Children” at the end because that has so much energy. I love the Mrs Phelps scenes and I love Matilda telling her story and Mrs Phelps getting wrapped up in it – that's one of my favourite scenes. When Ms Honey sings “My House” that's always very touching.
DOH: If you could play another role in the show which would it be?
RT: It would be Ms Trunchbull! He's the best – it's a great, great role, so well written, it has everything in there that you'd hope to do.
DOH: Your track is extremely demanding – what's been the biggest challenge as a performer?
RT: It's a big manic moment really – it's good fun and it keeps me fit. Singing at full pelt and doing all that dancing is quite something, especially at my age! Every night there's always something - I've never known anything like it. If you get it all right and it's perfection then you know something isn't quite sitting right – there's always something that comes up. In the first year I used to do a flip over and I did it once and my foot hit the table. In rehearsals I've landed on the floor more times that I can shake a stick at. There's always something! It's so full of so much stuff that you really, really need to concentrate – I feel we're getting there, after just a year and a half!
DOH: It's quite different to other characters you have played in the West End...
RT: I do tend to play a lot of stupid characters – very horrible sounding voices, that tends to be something I do ! Lina Lamont in Singin in the Rain for example who I adore. Before this I did a 'vampy' character in Top Hat but then From Here to Eternity was totally totally different.
DOH: What do you love about musical theatre as both a performer and an audience member?
RT: I like the variety – musical theatre isn't just one thing, the genre is so vast. Look at Hamilton – the styles are so different, I love that. I like to be a chameleon and change from one thing to another. Pop musicals terrify the hell out of me because I'm not a pop singer, but I kind of like that! It makes me push myself and try something different – you can surprise yourself by trying different things. Watching musical theatre there are so many stories and things that it brings into your life.
DOH: And finally, why do you think Matilda the Musical continues to be so successful in the West End and around the world?
RT: Because it's a great story – it's a great, great story. The kids in it are amazing and the music is fantastic. I think it's just a very solid piece, it's open to everyone – children and adults and I really think that's what keeps it going.
Rebecca Thornhill continues in Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre.