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“You want to try and come up with a universal Trunch for everybody…”

She’s the number one villain of many of our childhoods. She’s the headmistress we’re glad we never had. She’s Miss. Trunchbull, and she’s making her way across the country for the UK Tour of Matilda the Musical! We chatted to Craige Els who plays “the Trunch” in the show about what it’s like to take on one of the most iconic baddies of children’s literature, how performing regionally differs from the West End, and which other female villains he’d like to play if another Roald Dahl Musical was in the making…

Culture Calling: How does it feel taking on one of the most iconic villains of children’s literature?
Craige Els: You have quite a responsibility to try to be true to a character who is a childhood favourite of so many people! Because Roald Dahl wrote those brilliant characters, and when you read a book your own imagination makes everything up, you want to try and come up with a universal Trunch for everybody, that everyone thinks “yep, that’s what we thought Trunch would be like!” So yeah, it’s a great privilege and a great responsibility at the same time.

RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Craige Els (Miss Trunchbull). Photo Manuel Harlan.
CC: And you’re following in the footsteps of other people playing the character both on stage… and of course on screen! Have you been influenced by anyone else’s portrayals?
CE: I’ve never really taken influences from anybody, but I thought Pam Ferris was fantastic in the film! And when I first saw the musical I saw Bertie Carvel do it in Stratford-Upon-Avon. But I’ve tried not to base it on anyone else, and just try to approach the material with a fresh mind. Dennis Kelly’s script is so fantastic, and Tim’s (Minchin) songs are obviously brilliant, and I think they capture that Roald Dahl-ian darkness perfectly.
In the book Roald Dahl writes such a fantastic description of Miss. Trunchbull, so you’ve got lots to go on. And then like any other acting role, you just approach her as a supervillain with the information you’re given, with a backstory and the text and the songs, and you try and create someone as dark as dark can be, with these little geniuses who are playing Matilda alongside you providing all the light!
CC: At the same time as being “a supervillain” Miss. Trunchbull is also a very funny character. How do you manage to balance being comic and terrifying at the same time?
CE: This was something me and the director talked about early on. The Trunchbull has to believe that she is right all the time. Even though we know as an audience that she is out of her mind, she has her own reasons for how she is. So the comedy really come out of the fact that she is as maniacal and bizarre as she is. The danger with characters like that, is if you try and play it for comedy and ham them up, you get it wrong, and it becomes pantomimic.
There are feminine touches that develop over time, and it’s quite nice to remind the audience that she’s still a woman rather than just a beast. If humour comes out of that, then fantastic, but really playing it straight down the line and making sure she is as horrible as possible, means that the comedy comes out of the situations she’s in.

RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Carly Thoms (Miss Honey) & Craige Els (Miss Trunchbull). Photo Manuel Harlan
CC: Have you played any female roles before?
CE: No I’ve never played a woman before! I didn’t really think to myself “I have the responsibility of playing a woman”, it was more the fact that I had the responsibility of playing Miss. Trunchbull. She’s just a villain who happens to be a woman. I didn’t have to do catwalk classes, or learn how to do my nails and make up properly. She’s just so horrible and grotesque!
CC: What do you think having the Trunchbull played by a male actor adds to the role?
CE: I’ve heard that at the beginning of the musical, the role was workshopped many times, sometimes with a female in the role and other times with a male. Similarly, they experimented with the children’s roles being played by adults. They played around with it a lot and developed it which is why it’s so finely polished and as beautiful to watch as it is today. So I don’t think there’s any other reasons than they just workshopped it and found that a male worked. Also I think the physical nature of the show, such as spinning Amanda round by the pigtails, influenced the decision to make it a man – not that an athletic woman couldn’t do it! And also the comedy comes from the fact that it is a man.

RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Craige Els (Miss Trunchbull). Photo Manuel Harlan
CC: How long have you been performing the role?
CE: I was lucky enough to play her for three years in the West End, and so far we are six months into our tour now!
CC: How does performing the show differ on tour than performing in the West End?
CE: Slightly. In London you’re one of so many shows, so many of the audiences you get are tourists, or on holiday, and have seen a number of different shows whilst they’re in the city. Whereas when you go to other cities, there’s a lot of hype about it. There’s publicity and build up to it for months and months before you arrive, and when you do, you’re the big show in town! So it’s quite nice to come away and get some fresh, local responses. I’m looking forward to taking it to Manchester, because it’s the closest to home the show is going for me (I’m from Liverpool), so my Nan will be able to come and see it!   
CC: As you mentioned before, the lyrics in the musical are written by Tim Minchin and in his signature style are very clever and witty. Do you have a favourite song to perform?
CE: “Hammer” is great obviously, because it’s a moment that no one expects, but I love “Smell of Rebellion”. All of the kids are involved in the number and it’s so much fun. It changes so many different musical tones and just shows you how crazy Trunchbull is by the end when she’s being pulled across the stage on the vault like some sort of showgirl. Tim’s words are a joy to sing night after night, that’s why I never get tired of it. He cleverly gets rhymes in where you wouldn’t expect them. And then my personal favourite to watch is the School Song, it’s absolute musical theatre genius.

RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Photo Manuel Harlan
CC: You mentioned the kids. A high percentage of the cast of Matilda The Musical are children. What’s it like working with so many young actors?
CE: It’s brilliant. It’s been one of the highlights of the job for me. They are the beating heart of the production, and they work tirelessly. They all are fantastic little characters with their own personalities. They’re all so excited to be doing the job, and it reminds you of that childlike desire and hunger to play and perform, and they do it night after night, it’s incredible.
CC: The talented young cast is one of the selling points of the show!
CE: I call them our secret weapon. Anyone who hasn’t seen the show before is just blown away, and the people who come and see it multiple times still can’t believe what the kids are doing. And sometimes it will be different children playing Matilda, or Bruce, and they’re all amazing.

RSC Matilda The Musical UK & Ireland Tour. Photo Manuel Harlan
CC: Are you a Roald Dahl fan yourself?
CE: A HUGE Roald Dahl fan. He was the children’s author of my generation really. I read all of his books, I ate them up when I was younger! My favourite was always George’s Marvellous Medicine.
CC: If you could perform as another character from one of Roald Dahl’s books what would it be?
CE: There’s so many. I’d love to have a go at the BFG. That would be fantastic. Also if they did Danny Champion of the World I could always be Danny’s dad in that. And if they ever did The Witches it would be quite good to cross cast that with some women and some men, that would be really fun to stick with the female villain theme.
Matilda the Musical is currently playing at the Manchester Palace Theatre until 24 November 2018. It will then tour to venues around the UK including Wales Millenium Centre (4 December 2018 – 12 January 2019), Theatre Royal Plymouth (15 January– 16 February 2019), Alhambra Theatre Bradford (19 February– 23 March 2019 2019), Edinburgh Playhouse (2 April – 27 April 2019), The Bristol Hippodrome (7 May – 8 June 2019), Southampton Mayflower (11 June – 6 July 2019) and Norwich Theatre Royal (16 July – 17 August 2019).