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Review: Tim Minchin reveals The Matilda that never was

Matilda has changed Tim Minchin's life. But had he had his way, it could have been a very different story

Karl Quinn, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March, 2016

"Matilda," says Tim Minchin, "has been such a wonderful thing for my life". But, as the documentary Matilda & Me intimates, it could easily have been so very different.

The score written by the WA-raised, LA-based Minchin for the Royal Shakespeare Company's adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel won him an Olivier in 2012, has wowed them on Broadway and the West End. The musical played in Sydney last year – the preparations for that season constitute a major thread in the doco, co-directed by his sister Nel with Rhian Skirving, who also directed the 2008 doco on Minchin, Rock n Roll Nerd – and it has just opened in Melbourne.

And it launched him into Hollywood too – a recurring role in TV series Californication as Keith Richards-esque rocker Atticus Fetch, and the gig of a lifetime, writing and co-directing an animated feature film, Larrikins, for Dreamworks.

So, yes, it has been a wonderful thing for his life – but had he had his way 15 years ago, it's quite possible none of this would have happened.

Minchin was just 25 when he wrote to the Dahl estate, asking for their permission to stage a musical version of Matilda. They wrote back, asking him to send them his score. Of course, he hadn't yet written one, and he was a little panicked, so he dropped the idea and moved on.

In retrospect, does he think it was an audacious move even to approach the Dahl estate like that?

"I didn't dream, not in my wildest f---ing dream – I am the opposite of that audacious," he says. "I guess I did 10 things that year – I acted in three plays, wrote scores for two theatre shows, played 20 gigs and weddings. Shit, I was surviving.

"If they'd said yes, I'd have said cool, taken four weeks to write it, it would have gone to Barking Gecko Children's Theatre Company, they would have rehearsed it for three or four weeks, it would have gone on for three weeks, and it maybe it would have got a Western Australian tour – and that would have been it.

"I wasn't saying 'can I write THE musical'. I was saying 'can I write A musical'."

That was, he says, the only time he has ever approached anyone about the rights to a show, and it was born out of his long-standing love for the works of Dahl (he says he still reads him regularly now, at 40).

Sadly, he doesn't have any proof of the approach either. "I wish I still had that email, because I think some people will think it's not even true. It feels 'comedian', right? I don't know if I even told anyone at the time. There are no witnesses. It's a complete coincidence that the only time I ever wrote to an estate was about the very piece that ended up changing my life irreparably."

Of course, some people might be tempted to argue it's not a coincidence but rather an illustration of the guiding hand of fate, or some unknowable omniscient force. But if you are among them, might I respectfully suggest that you say that to Minchin at your own peril. "I'm a right-down, balls-and-all materialist," he says. "Anything to do with a notion of fate or the universe having a purpose, they short-change meaning to me, as does spirituality.

"Nel's doco is a lovely example of, 'Well let's have a look at how this story occurred – the chances and the people and the hard luck and the good luck'. Every life is like that – if you drew a spaghetti line back over the paths of your life it would be like a Jackson Pollock painting. You don't need to say someone designed it."

Yes, he can concede that it's tempting to join a line between two points – that email, say, and the end result that is Matilda the musical – and to discern a straight and orderly path. But that's not how it happens.

"Life's complicated, isn't it, and from the outside you think, 'Oh that person's life did this; what a nice story'. But when you're inside it, it doesn't feel like that. It feels hard and complicated and great and chaotic.

"But to have someone point a camera at a particular thing and to turn it into a narrative – well, that is cohesive and lovely, even if it's bullshit."

WHAT Matilda and Me WHEN ABC, Sunday, April 3, 7.40pm

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