Meet the Matildas: where are the original stars now?

Isobelle Molloy as Matilda - Manuel Harlan
Isobelle Molloy as Matilda - Manuel Harlan

It has been almost 12 years since Matilda the Musical first made a generation of theatregoers fall in love with a little girl who stands up to injustice with her brilliant mind. Written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin for the RSC, the West End hit has been seen by more than 10 million people, enjoyed success on Broadway, and has now been adapted by Netflix into a film starring Emma Thompson and Stephen Graham. Tonight, it will become the first musical to ever open the London Film Festival. The West End show has also featured 60 young actresses in the part of a lifetime. But how do these girls step into the shoes of Roald Dahl’s telekinetic heroine, and where do they go afterwards?

To play Matilda, there are rules: actresses must be between eight and 12-years-old, under 4ft 3in and live within an hour of central London. For their auditions, they must perform a short poem or monologue of their own choosing, as well as a dance from the show. Each actress shares the role with three others to prevent exhaustion, taking on two of the eight performances a week for up to two years. Sweets and ice-cream – bad for their vocal cords – are strictly off the menu. To suggest that there is something a little bit “off” about the supernatural child, they must keep their head vertically straight at all times. Most tricky of all: they are forbidden from smiling until the very end of the show.

Despite these privations, Kerry Ingram, who originated the role of Matilda at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre in 2010, regards her stint on the show as “the most special time” in her life. Now 23, Ingram went on to land a role as Shireen Baratheon in Game of Thrones and today lives in Manchester with Cleo Demetriou, with whom (alongside two others) she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Matilda in 2012 – becoming the youngest ever recipients.

Ingram doesn’t think anything will top Matilda, though it wasn’t all plain sailing. She laughs: “Once, I fell off the stage and kicked the director’s mum in the face. It’s become their favourite story to tell new girls – like, you can’t possibly do something worse than this. I’m just glad I was able to help calm their nerves!”

The pressure is high for these children – sometimes still in Year Three of primary school – who must remember lines and detailed choreography, while maintaining their “normal” education. In fact, director Matthew Warchus wanted the role to be just a “hobby” for these children, instructing the cast “not to make it [hard] for them to go back to their lives.”

Cleo Demetriou, now 21, starred as Matilda when she was younger and describes the show as “a little family” - Lorne Campbell/ Guzelian
Cleo Demetriou, now 21, starred as Matilda when she was younger and describes the show as “a little family” - Lorne Campbell/ Guzelian

Having come from a family of non-actors, Hayley Canham, now 20, found the balance difficult. She describes herself as a “country bumpkin” who was encouraged to audition for Matilda by a teacher. “I tried really hard to have a normal routine, but it was definitely a challenge, and I maybe missed out on those normal sleepovers or after-school activities,” she says. But the show helped in other ways. “Surprisingly, doing the musical probably made my grades better, because I became more disciplined and better at juggling my time.”

Demetriou, now 21,  says the show’s sturdy support system insulated her from much of the stress. “It’s only looking back now that I realise how high-pressured it was: balancing school with rehearsals and performances. But we were like a little family in Matilda.”

The musical’s darker themes – gender, power, justice, trauma – make it much more of a loyal adaptation of Dahl’s book than the 1996 film, which sugar-coated his tale of not-so-childish revenge. Isobelle Molloy, 21, who first played the role of Amanda Thripp – the doe-eyed blonde who gets hurled over a fence by Miss Trunchbull for wearing her hair in pigtails – says Matilda “taught me to become a strong woman, how to set my own boundaries, how to fight back”.

The experience also opened doors in Hollywood; she went on to play Young Maleficent in the 2014 Disney film Maleficent opposite Angelina Jolie.

What is her advice for young girls who dream of auditioning for Matilda? “Have no fear, be feisty and rebellious, use [Matilda’s] strength and power as your own.”

Actress Isobelle Molloy, who played Matilda in the stage musical, has gone on to play Young Maleficent opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent (2014) - Heathcliff O'Malley
Actress Isobelle Molloy, who played Matilda in the stage musical, has gone on to play Young Maleficent opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent (2014) - Heathcliff O'Malley

Not all former Matildas choose to remain in the limelight. Having starred in Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem in 2015, Canham is now reading Classics at Queens' College, Cambridge. This summer, she took a modern, musical retelling of Euripides’ Medea – which she wrote and directed – to the Edinburgh Fringe.

“People might think there’s nowhere higher to go, after you’ve been the lead in a West End production so young, but I don’t see it like that,” she reflects. “It actually takes the pressure off a bit that I’ve already done this big, amazing thing that other people dream of.”

Across the pond in a different Cambridge, Lollie McKenzie, 19, recently started a degree in philosophy at Harvard University, though is already getting the itch to act again. “Nothing made me fall in love with acting like Matilda did,” she says. “It sounds clichéd, but I grew so much as a person from doing the show and became so much more confident. It really changed my life.”

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 25 November 2022 by Sony Pictures Releasing UK, and will stream on Netflix from December 25; Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre, WC2; lwtheatres.co.uk