'Matilda The Musical's Elliot Harper and Lauren Byrne on the power of imaginative storytelling
Matilda Wormwood is the little girl that could. Her inspiring thirst for knowledge knows no bounds. She isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right. She can even move objects with her mind. With all her admirable qualities, it's no surprise that Matilda charms theatregoers. Matilda The Musical is a West End institution, inspiring generations of audiences.
The charm of Roald Dahl's story is amplified throughout the meticulously crafted musical: The “School Song” cleverly uses the alphabet in a Crunchem Hall motto, and if you look at Rob Howell's Scrabble tile set design throughout the auditorium, you'll see themes and stories dear to Matilda's heart spelled out. Once all the pieces come together, it’s a work of art.
“It’s pretty nuanced… but that’s part of its genius,” said Elliot Harper, who plays Miss Trunchbull. Lauren Byrne, who recently joined the cast as Miss Honey, reflects, "it's one of those shows that you'll never tire of. It’s timeless.”
We chatted with The Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda The Musical’s Harper and Byrne about the musical’s timeless qualities, their time at school, and the power of a life-changing teacher.
Matilda The Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre.
Book Matilda The Musical tickets on London Theatre.
What were you like at school?
Elliot Harper: I was exactly the same. I've always been quite sort of insular. And what's the opposite of extrovert? Introvert! Yeah, I've always had a similar temperament.
Lauren Byrne: Oh, I was a nightmare. But I was only a nightmare at home. And then at school, I was very introverted because I didn't have any friends. My poor parents, they got the brunt of my extroverted personality. But then, at school I was very quiet. As I grew older, the extroverted-ness just came out, in all scenarios.
If you were playing a child in Matilda The Musical, who do you think you would play and why?
Elliot: I said before I’d be up for playing Matilda, but I think I'd like to be Amanda. I [as Trunchbull] spend a lot of time spinning young children, so I’d like to know what it’s like to be “Thripped.”
Lauren: Yeah, to be “Thripped,” that’d be fun. Maybe I’d be Lavender. I think that was probably me as close to how I was as a child as well.
This is the first time I've ever worked with kids, and honestly I was so gobsmacked. We were doing some promo and the director reeled off about six or seven lines of speech and they just immediately did it to camera, not a word out of place. They’re so professional. They’re like sponges.
Matilda's life changes thanks to Miss Honey. Did you have a teacher that changed your life?
Elliot: I did theatre studies for A Level, and my teacher used to be a professional theatre director. He had a different enthusiasm to the other teachers, in that he had half an eye on what it was like to actually be in the profession.He opened my eyes to the idea that it is a legitimate career.
A lot of my friends were going to go into “normal” jobs. But he was quite serious about it, and that really opened up the possibility for me. Mr. French, he was called.
Lauren: I went to your classic stage school when I was seven or eight. And when I got to about 11, one of the teachers there, whose name was Rachel Bell, she looked at me and thought, “Oh, she actually really takes this very seriously." I was always the kid that was like, "Shh, guys, the teacher’s talking.” I really loved it and really wanted whatever we were working on to be as good as it possibly could be.
Rachel took me aside and suggested that I start more classes, one to one singing lessons, things like that, and that was probably why I started. I didn't really recognise the career as much, I probably just thought it was a nice little hobby to do before you become an accountant, but actually, she definitely got me going down the path of, this is what I'd want to do.
Matilda the Musical’s all about the power of imagination through reading. What were your favourite stories as a child?
Lauren: I actually loved Roald Dahl growing up, funnily enough. I read all his books; The Great Glass Elevator was my favourite. There’s a quote in The Twits that is just so lovely. It’s about: “When you have lovely thoughts, they shine out of your face and then you’re always beautiful.” I loved Roald Dahl, but I’m big into sci-fi and fantasy.
Elliot: I had those Famous Five and Secret Seven Enid Blyton books. You’d read a part of the book, and depending on what avenue you went down, you read another section from the back and it took you through the story. But there were different ways in which you could go through the story.
What’s the best part about playing your role?
Lauren: I’ve auditioned for Matilda every year since 2018. I’ve always been so captivated. For my first recall, I had to learn “My House.” As soon as I learned it for that audition, I was like, oh my goodness, this song is so special. I just think it's one of those shows that you'll never tire of listening. It’s timeless.
I've absolutely loved every single show that I've done so far as Miss Honey. She's a really special character and someone that I've been absolutely dreaming to play. I feel very, very lucky to be doing it every night.
Elliot: Anthony Hopkins once said he would grow a moustache and let that play the part for him. I feel a bit similar with the costume and makeup and wig for Trunchbull. I sound very lazy, but it does a lot for you, which is nice because it’s horrendously uncomfortable. It's transformative.
I’ve played lots of parts that are relatively similar to me. The closer the part is to you actually, the tougher it is. But when you're playing these extremes, and you have a costume like I have to sort of help you with that. It's quite liberating.
Why do you think Matilda The Musical continues to run in London?
Elliot: It’s a bit cliche, but it does appeal to children and adults in the same sitting. The subplots are unique to the show. It’s very sophisticated and adult audiences get a kick out of following the story, because it's pretty nuanced. There's also a lot for children and younger people to enjoy. It's very vivid, and comic book in its storytelling.
Lauren: You can definitely tell what laughs and for the kids and what's for the adults. Some audiences are way more adult and then matinees are guaranteed to have more children in the audience, with big groups of school kids. That's always really nice because you get a different reaction, every single show.
The big takeaway from this show is the idea to fight for what's right. No matter when you're watching the show 10 years ago or now or in 10 years' time, that message will always apply and will always be relevant. I think no matter what's going on in this big scary world, that message is always quite applicable.
Photo credit: Elliot Harper and Lauren Byrne (Manuel Harlan © RSC)
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