Matilda the Musical writer wades into the arts funding cuts debate: “patently economically stupid”

Dennis Kelly  (Getty Images)
Dennis Kelly (Getty Images)

The acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Dennis Kelly has written an impassioned letter to Conservative MP Sir Robert Neill protesting the swingeing cuts to Arts Council England funding, and especially the 100 per cent cut for the Hampstead Theatre, a venue historically dedicated to new writing in north London.

A debate on the funding decisions, which were announced in November last year and saw an alarming number of casualties among London institutions and venues, is scheduled to take place in parliament tomorrow, Wednesday January 18 at 2.30pm. Sir Robert, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Opera and last year described ACE as having “gone rogue” in response to the cuts, will lead the debate.

In his letter, which was emailed to Sir Bob and shared on social media at Kelly’s request by his playwright David Eldridge, Kelly thanks the MP for backing the debate and for his support of English National Opera and Glyndeboure, but asks him to consider including the Hampstead Theatre as part of his argument. Since the cuts, the theatre’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, has resigned, and the theatre announced that as it stands, it will no longer be able to survive by focusing only on new writing.

“I know from personal experience how vital Hampstead Theatre is to the wider cultural ecology because it was the first professional venue to put on my work,” writes Kelly in his letter. He goes on to point out that from that opportunity developed a career which arguably created one of the most-loved – and commercially successful – British musicals of all time, Matilda the Musical, which has now been running in the West End for 10 years. Kelly wrote the book, alongside the Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin, who wrote the songs.

Kelly also adapted the stage show into a screenplay; the film, which features Emma Thompson as the fearsome Miss Trunchbull and No Time to Die star Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, is in cinemas now. “Making that film brought a huge amount of money into this country, and the stage show has also done the same thing, with the vast majority of the profits... going back into the RSC, to be spent mostly in their education and outreach department,” Kelly continues.

“None of that happens without Hampstead Theatre taking a chance on me, putting on a play that no other theatre in the country wanted to touch... that hardly anyone watched,” he writes. “But enough people liked it to keep me writing.

“Dominic Cooke recently said that defunding Hampstead Theatre is an act of cultural vandalism... but bearing in mind everything I’ve just said, isn’t it patently economically stupid as well?” Kelly asks.

The arts and culture industry as a whole contributes more than £10 billion a year to the UK economy, and accounts for more than 2 million jobs. Kelly’s letter also points out that removing the funding for Hampstead will destroy opportunities for young writers now, and in the future.

“This isn’t about me,” he writes, “I had my opportunity... It’s about another young writer out there right now who’s losing theirs, who’s going to give up because their chances are gone.”

Tomorrow’s debate comes hot on the heels of a report, published today, by the Lords Communications and Digital Committee, which said the creative industries should sit at the heart of the UK’s economic growth plans, but the Government is failing to “unlock the sector’s full potential” by fixing policies “characterised by incoherence and barriers to success”.