Preview: Matilda the Musical

Craige Els, one of the stars of Matilda the Musical says that the production now in Manchester is just as lavish as the West End blockbuster

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“I’ve got it down to about 25 minutes now. I do it all myself,” says Craige Els of the transformation he’s undergone on a daily basis for the past four years. “It took me a while to take over, I learnt a little bit at a time piece by piece.”

He’s talking about the masses of make-up that turn him from an average – albeit quite tall – Liverpool lad, into the warty, monobrowed and most “formidable female”, headteacher Miss Trunchbull in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

The show, which runs until the end of November in Manchester, has been at the Palace Theatre for almost three weeks now, still, a snip compared with the three-year run Els did in the West End. Based on Dahl’s famous story of a little girl who has extraordinary genius but really stupid parents, and adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company with a script by Dennis Kelly and lyrics from comic Tim Minchin, since its debut in 2010 Matilda the Musical has become one of the musical big hitters. It’s swept up awards including Oliviers and Tonys and quickly moved from Stratford to the West End and Broadway.

“The show you see in Manchester is no different at all. They’ve compromised nothing for a touring show, which sometimes they have to, but apart from a few technical differences that you wouldn’t even notice it’s exactly the same,” assures Els. “The only difference is we get the fantastic home crowds in a new city. Every night’s a party night on tour.”

Bringing the show homeward to the North West, Els says, is a joy, and joining the party will be several schoolmates who now have children of their own, and his nan. “She’s chomping at the bit to come and see it again. She saw it week three in the West End so she’s not seen it for nearly four years and she can’t wait.

“My auntie, who saw it with my nan the first time round, saw it at our last stop, in Birmingham a month ago, and she commented on how different I was. She said she could tell I’ve spent a long time with the role. I guess when you spend this length of time with any part it sort of becomes more you. You work out all those small details so I’m hoping she notices the difference.”

Headmistress Trunchbull is the first woman Els has played but given Dahl’s description of her – “you got the feeling that this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half” – he’s not concerned himself with trying to appear feminine.

“Height-wise I fit the bill, I’m flexible, fairly athletic, I love physical comedy, I love comedy full stop,” he says, listing his credentials. “But I also relish the chance of acting and making as truthful as I possibly can an ogress such as her.

“So rather than trying to play her as a woman I just try to play the villain, and the writing, the costume, the make-up and everything really really helps.”

Make-up on, Els is swept up by a team tackling his wig before, finally, wardrobe comes to help him with his fat suit.

“It’s a physical demand but it’s more cumbersome than heavy. It’s made out of foam and it took me a while to get used to my new dimensions. Now I’m so used to it I forget I have the fat suit on. Although it gets a bit warm in the second act.”

Matilda the Musical is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, until 24 November (

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