'My mummy says I'm a miracle,' lisps a pampered mini-me at a purgatorial kiddies' birthday party at the outset of this delicious, treacly-dark family show. The obnoxious ma and pa of its titular, gifted, pint-sized heroine are not, of course, quite so doting. But 'Matilda' must be making its creators, playwright Dennis Kelly and comedian-songsmith Tim Minchin, a very pair of proud parents. Opening to rave reviews in Stratford-upon Avon before transferring to the West End in 2011 and snatching up Olivier Awards with all the alacrity of a sticky-fingered child in a sweetshop, Matthew Warchus's RSC production remains a treat. With hindsight, Kelly and Minchin's musical, born of the 1988 novel by that master of the splendidly grotesque Roald Dahl, is a little too long and, dramatically, a tad wayward. But like the curly-haired little girl in the famous nursery rhyme, when it is good, it is very, very good. And it's even better when it's horrid. The past few months have seen some cast changes, including, alas, the departure of Bertie Carvel's tremendous Miss Trunchbull, headmistress of the dread Crunchem Hall School, former Olympic hammer-thrower and a gorgon of monumental nastiness, complete with scarily Thatcher-esque tics of purse-lipped gentility and faux concern. David Leonard doesn't quite match the squirm-inducing, hair-raising detail of Carvel in the role, but his more butch, granite-faced version is fantastically horrible nonetheless. And if Paul Kaye as Matilda's loathso
© Rob Greig
Tim Minchin is a few hours into signing 2,000 copies of his first book, ‘Storm’, and he’s barely made a dent. ‘It’s taking literally hours!’ he laughs, as he scribbles his name on another copy, and another, and another. He’s determined to finish the stack in front of him before we start our chat.
‘Storm’ was originally a ten-minute beat poem, set to a jazz backing track, and was part of the comic’s 2008 show ‘Ready For This?’ Through fluid rhythms and intricate rhymes, the 39-year-old musician-comedian recounted the clash between his science-loving self and a pro-homeopathy hippy named Storm, while his character descends into rants about religion and psychics. It’s become a reference point for rational thinkers everywhere, and Minchin has become a poster boy for humanism since the release of the animated short film of the same name in 2011 (it’s racked up three million views on YouTube).
Now the poem’s message is set to reach a whole new audience in the form of a graphic novel, which has been lovingly brought to life by animator DC Turner and producer Tracy King. The book already has the hallmark of being a success – these soon-to-be-signed copies have sold out. But Minchin’s making slow progress and he needs a break. ‘Okay, this is taking too long,’ he says, putting down his pen. ‘It’s getting rude. Let’s do this interview.’
What can fans get out of the graphic novel that they couldn’t from ‘Storm’s other forms?
‘Who knows why people want to buy it? People seem to be ordering it. I think it’s beautiful. The internet now is completely full of memes and it’s interesting the idea that instead of having a sign crotched on your door or a magnet on your fridge saying whatever clichés and bon mots, pictures laid out with some text are passed around and move really fast. This book is like a series of amazing panels. These not-particularly-brilliant-but-reasonably-phrased ideas – like, “Every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic” – are now framed.’
How much input did you have into the book itself then?
‘Nothing. It’s nothing to do with me. I’ve got to know Dan [the illustrator] and Tracy [the producer] very well over the years and I trust them entirely. It’s also not my genre. Which is strange because I’m co-directing a massive animated film, so I’m very interested in the way imagery is used. But I have no aesthetic, it’s not my bag, so I just let them do it. That’s the great part about arts – someone taking your work and making it something else; it’s becomes a true collaboration.’
The poem is loosely based on a true story. How does the real Storm feel about being slammed in multiple different art forms?
‘If she ever saw the piece I would be surprised if she was able to identify herself. She’s never been named – I can’t actually remember her name! I suspect she’s happily naïve, happily innocent of the truth.’
Why has ‘Storm’ been so well-received?
‘It’s so broad-reaching and didactic – the last two minutes of it are a humanist manifesto. For people who are humanists – or whatever capital-letter label you want to put on not believing in shit that doesn’t seem to be true – it’s hard to find popular culture that reflects those views. So people pass it around as an avatar for their own world view.’
How do you feel about being a spokesperson for those views?
‘I’m nervous of any doctrine or icon. I don’t want my work or me as a person to be held up as a paradigm because, as Richard Dawkins knows, if people hold you up too much you’re only ever going to disappoint them by being a human. When you get more well-known, your words end up carrying weight that you didn’t want them to.’
Do you worry about becoming known more as a poster boy for these views than as an artist?
‘It’s something I’ve managed very consciously and think about a lot. It’s stupid – they’re all stolen ideas anyway! I was asked to be president of a well-known humanist organisation a couple of years ago. Obviously I have no credentials… Well, I guess the Pope doesn’t have any credentials either. But what those organisations need is someone recognisable to get a statement across. All I really want to do is entertain, but any power people like me have as disseminators of ideas can be diluted by putting a label across the top of our heads. So I’m much better off sneaking these ideas into comedy.’
Does adding jokes help those ideas go down more smoothly?
‘Making people laugh is the most incredible way to sugar a pill. I didn’t get into comedy to share ideas, but I’ve had to acknowledge that it’s part of the job. As I got more well known as a comedian I had to think more carefully about what I was saying, I realised there was a responsibility. Eventually that can become too much. Comedy is often a short career because you get to a point where you are no longer a small thing punching up at targets, you are the big thing, and it’s hard to write from that position.’
Perhaps that’s why some comedians have a stab at politics. Would you consider taking your ideas further?
‘I do like the idea of contributing somehow. The temptation of politics, for me, would be ego, so I would resist that urge. And it’s horrible – why would you do that job when you can cruise around in a tour bus drinking and playing music to people?’
At your Hyde Park gig in July you said you had semi-retired from comedy, that ‘the only thing better than doing stand-up was not doing stand-up’. Are you really finished with live comedy?
‘Did I say that? That’s quite a good bumble! No, I’m not. I would love to tour with new material next year. It just feels less likely as [the time] approaches. It’s funny, I’m still known in this country as a comedian. I’m heading towards 20 years of being a professional performer/musician/writer – five of those years have been comedy. It’s hardly retiring – comedy was the thing I did in that period and now I’ve gone back to doing things that I’ve always done: acting, making shit and writing musical theatre.’
You moved to LA recently. How are you fitting in to the Hollywood lifestyle?
‘People think moving to LA means you’re trying to become rich and famous, but moving to LA is about being a writer and a family man and doing more exercise. In England I’m a famous person, but in America I’m a fucking nobody.’
It’s obviously going well out there. As you say, you’ve been asked to direct a big animated film, ‘Larrikins’.
‘I was writing the songs but then I sort of had a go at the script and they figured I had an idea of how the tone should be. I’m not going to be making camera choices… Well, I will, I’ll learn, and I learn fast. But that’s not what I’m bringing to it. I’m bringing an understanding of storytelling in a particular form. In this case, Australian-musical-comedy-road-journey-by-animals. Part of me is like, “What the fuck are you doing putting me in charge of this thing?”, and the other part of me is like, “Well, if want to tell an Australian story in musical form, comically, I’m probably not far off the right chap. So alright!”’
They must have a lot of faith in you. You’ve never directed anything and your first stab at it is a high-budget DreamWorks animation.
‘Yeah! I will have a lot of support, but they do have faith in me and that’s because I’m now at an age where I can have faith in myself. Although I have a lot of self-doubt, I also know that there’s absolutely no point letting self-doubt be the thing that you put first. Your self-doubt is for your bedroom at three in the morning when, on my street, you’ve been woken up by a coyote. Where it doesn’t belong is in the studio where people want someone with a clear vision to help them not get lost in a four-year process that’s going to cost $100 million. Whether or not I believe it, they need someone to go, “I reckon this,” so I’m going to keep reckoning stuff until they fire me. Or until I fire them [laughs].’
You’re writing another musical, which is an adaptation of ‘Groundhog Day’. What is it about that film that lends itself well to musical theatre?
‘It’s an almost Stoppardian theatrical construct. It’s a life journey in a day; this man starts arrogant and aspirational and ends peaceful and wise, and in the middle he tries to kill himself 17 times. If you treat that right it can be very funny and moving.’
Where’s it headed, the West End or Broadway?
‘I think we would like to open it in London. No, I probably shouldn’t even say that! We don’t know. If we think it has long-running appeal it should go to Broadway first, because it’s an American story, it belongs to them. But we could easily do a smaller version in London as a “soft opening”, because this is where more of the creatives are.’
‘Matilda’ won a record number of Olivier awards. Is there much pressure on ‘Groundhog Day’?
‘There is, but I don’t have trouble keeping the pressure in the right place. The pressure on me is to tell the story well, with wit and insight and nice tunes and musical integrity. I’m not making “Groundhog Day” for Broadway, I’m making it for the work. There are no hit-makers, there’s no magic formula, there’s no golden fucking goose, it’s just about good artist-driven theatre with real integrity and heart. Basically, just try to be good at your job.’
Tim Minchin’s ‘Storm’ is published by Orion on Thu Oct 16.