Opening with a stunning start, Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is the first premiere of the BFI London Film Festival 

BFI London Film Festival begins with the opening of Matilda The Musical, which premiered on Wednesday 5th October 2022. Stars from the film such as Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch and Stephen Graham graced the red carpet at BFI Southbank. An adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, Matilda The Musical focuses on a girl with a huge imagination who is confined by controlling parents and a cruel teacher. She navigates her world through books and tries to break free from those who control her.

Ahead of the premiere, we were invited to the exclusive press conference held in the glamorous and prestigious ‘The Mayfair Hotel’. The ambience of the hotel is steeped in elegance and the exterior is hard to ignore as vibrant sports cars are lined up neatly in front of the entrance. Away from the grand entrance is a separate section of the building and the location of the press conference. Seated third row from the front, I sat amongst journalists as we looked at eight empty seats soon to be filled by the talented cast and curators behind Matilda The Musical.  

A roar of clapping filled the room as each person from the film filed in one by one, as they sat in front of the vibrant BFI London Film Festival logo. We were joined by director Matthew Warchus, writer Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin. As well as cast Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, Alisha Weir, Stephen Graham and Sindhu Vee. 

A speaker sat amongst the cast and the creative minds behind the film and she asked them a multitude of questions. Rising star Alisha Weir was asked what she enjoyed about playing Matilda and she responded: ‘I loved putting myself in Matilda’s shoes, you can’t decide what kind of life you are going to live in and she got put into a life where her parents don’t look after her and they don’t care for her. So, she has to do things herself even though she’s really young. I love how clever she is and how courageous and brave she is.’

The next question was directed towards Emma Thompson and she discussed playing the character of Miss Trunchbull and the conversations she had with director Matthew Warchus. ‘The thing is, it has always been played by men’. 

She continued: ’so I said how much like a man do you want me to play it? Matthew said, ‘no we are moving away from that but I need her to be absolutely real’’. 

Growing up surrounded by the work of Dahl, she speaks of her favourite book and characters that share the similar dark qualities of Miss Trunchbull. ‘My favourite book when I was little was James and the Giant Peach and I think Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are early manifestations of the kind of monstrous female who is more awful than you can imagine.’

She later explains: ‘Trunchbull is so terrible because she is so cruel.’

The athleticism and strength of Miss Trunchbull are defining qualities of the headteacher and Emma Thompson explains that playing the character was ‘probably physically the most demanding thing I’ve ever done’. 

Seated to the left of Emma Thompson the speaker directed a question to Lashana Lynch, who plays the kindhearted Miss Honey. In response to being asked how she approached the character, she also discussed how she also had her own Miss Honey at school, which she looked up to. ‘Miss Honey is one of my favourite characters from the book and from the film when I was a child. I also have my own Miss Honey from primary school that I looked up to, she was also a black woman and taught me how to sing and taught me to be confident within myself. I thought Miss Honey is just that then, she is just here for the children to be able to give them their best selves in the most organic and sweet way but also through the most tremendous amount of pain and trauma. She is so very much triggered by every single thing at school, apart from these children.’

Stephen Graham lit up the room when he joked about how the musical is different from his gritty social realism work in films. He also spoke about his adoration for his co-star Alisha Weir, who plays Matilda, describing her as ‘absolutely outstanding’. He continued to sing her praise: ‘She had a wonderful way of bringing the truth to her performance as well, which then just brought you right down to what it was all about and it was that moment between the two. We had some wonderful moments between the two of us as father and daughter but also as that relationship progresses.’ 

Speaking of the impact that he thinks the film will have, he said: ‘The original film, my kids loved it and watched it millions and millions of times, so hopefully, for a new generation we can have that same impact, it was just a joy.’

Actress and comedian Sindhu Vee plays librarian Mrs Phelps, she spoke at the conference about a time when she was bullied and used books to escape. The Librarian in the film helps Matilda as a supportive figure and actress Sindhu experienced this help in real life when she was bullied as a child. ‘I was terribly bullied, we lived in a foreign country, I had a stammer, a terrible stammer, but I wanted to talk all the time so all the kids hated me.’

The actress recollects a time in her childhood when a teacher in her school let her stay in the class and read. Escaping the realities of her bullying, she was allowed to take shelter in books. The actress also had another similar encounter when she studied in a convent in India. She didn’t have the language skills and had a stammer and instead of going to Hindi class, a librarian allowed her to read. Sindhu reflects and said: ‘both of these women taught me to sit in books and feel safe.’ She later says: ‘I remember what it felt like as a child to need that safety and find that in books.’

The glances of admiration and energy were joyous amongst each member of the panel and it rippled onto the guests in attendance. Both the cast and Matthew, Dennis and  Tim who were behind the direction, screenplay and music were deeply passionate and excited about the upcoming film. You could tell that each actor was part of a bigger picture, bringing life to the Roald Dahl legacy and gifting that to the next generation of children. A lot of children will probably watch Matilda the Musical for the first time and it will be a film that stays in their hearts for years to come.

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