Matilda - London

Roald Dahl's classic children's book comes to the West End stage.

West End Star Craige Els on His Long Run in Matilda and the Idea of a Trunchbull Fitness Video

West End Star Craige Els on His Long Run in Matilda and the Idea of a Trunchbull Fitness Video
Craige Els in 'Matilda"
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Craige Els has appeared at the National and Chichester Festival Theatres as well as in the West End in the musicals Spamalot and Never Forget and is currently enjoying an extended run as Miss Trunchbull in the beloved musical Matilda, in which the very tall actor towers over the young students in the Trunch’s midst. The always-charming performer took time recently afternoon to talk West End takeovers, long runs and the fun he is having terrorizing the Matilda family eight times a week. 

How long have you been part of Matilda?
Two and a half years. I’ve been very honored to be asked to stay on this long, really. This is one of those roles in one of those shows that doesn’t come along that many times in a career.

Is this your longest contract to date?
Definitely! I did [Take That] musical Never Forget for nearly two years with breaks but with this one, I was just delighted to get the job in the first place. And because the kids change every six months, that keeps it constantly interesting. Just when you think the show might be taking a dip, you get 21 new little people who think it’s the best thing that has ever happened.

Do you find yourself rejuvenated through the kids’ eyes?
Through the eyes of their parents as well! Once you get to my age, a few years out of a life is not a long time, but when you’re 10 years old and have done a job for 12 months, that’s one-tenth of your life, so the kids become these sort of constant inspirations: they warm your heart and give the entire thing a lift.

What are your feelings about the show itself?
First of all, the writing and the songs are so unique and so different and so brilliant. All the Trunch’s scenes are such wonderful set pieces, so that every scene is sort of a joy in its own right and you know the effect it will have on an audience. 

Were you aware of Matilda from its very beginning in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010?
I was and initially tried to get myself seen for Mr. Wormwood [Matilda’s father. When I saw that Trunchbull was played by a man, I thought, “Hello, that looks a bit tasty,” and always hoped that I would play it someday. Luckily, that has been the case.

Is there an alumni association of Trunchbulls, starting with its creator, Bertie Carvel?
I’ve met Bertie once at a press night and met [subsequent Trunch] Alex Gaumond through the show but have never met David Leonard. I suppose more than anything what would be fun would be to trade notes, though at the same time you want to put your own stamp on [the role]. You get to be the person in the show who is scary, in that you’ve got this tiny girl [Matilda] next to this monstrous woman, but there’s a lot of fun to be had, as well. The challenge is to honor the color and the fun of the show but also to keep it truthful.  

With that in mind, how do you approach playing a woman?
It’s about not just camping it up or playing it for laughs or in some sort of panto-esque style. I very much treat the role as that of a headmistress—which Trunchbull is—and someone with obligations and relationships to other people in the story. Gender does form quite an important element of it all. 

What sort of interaction do you have with the kids as Craige, given how forbidding you are to them in character?
I very much like them to be my pals backstage in view of how differently I speak to them as Craige offstage and the Trunch onstage. They’re so smart and so good that when I come on doing the shouting and growling, they play scared and terrified quite brilliantly—they’re much better actors than I am!

How are you finding the physical challenge of the role?
I’m presuming this was much the same for the other guys: I’ve got my own personal boobs and belly and little bits of back fat, and obviously, the hump that goes on the back, which is all foam so technically is very lightweight. You have to work hard at first to keep your posture because the stage is raked as well, but you just get used to sweating a lot.

Should there be a Trunchbull health and fitness video?
I always think there could be a workout video! I can literally eat as much as I want on this job and it seems to make no difference; I’m dreading coming out of the show and being huge after six months.

How did you get the unusual spelling of your first name?
I was born in South Africa because my dad is Afrikaans and my mom was from Liverpool, so I’m Scouse-African, which is unusual. I don’t know if “Craige” is traditional Afrikaans, but I can imagine it in a sentence: “I love that shirt! Do you do it in craige?”

Would you be up for another musical theater takeover, in light of how successful this one has been for you?
Definitely. I always think it’s an honor to be asked if someone thinks you’re right for a part, and it’s good not to be too precious about it. If the right job came up and it was a takeover, then absolutely! I’m just hopeful that a mixture of roles will continue throughout my career.