Matilda The Musical: In Conversation with Rob Howell

Rob Howell is a multi-award winning set and costume designer, best known for his work on the London stage and Broadway. Jigsaw editor-in-chief Ana Santi meets the man who brought Matilda The Musical to life, before a matinee screening of the show at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End.

Looking back now, it seems like a really pedestrian idea – for the design to be simply school desks, popping up from the floor or flying through the air – but at the time, of course, I thought I was brilliant. And I bashed away at that for a couple of months. But there was nothing there that could go beyond the “deskness” of a desk and I couldn’t get any colour into it. It was fully modelled. Literally every single thing you’re looking at here [he points to the stage] has been modelled at a scale of 1 to 25. It would’ve been fine, who knows, but something in me made me put it away. So, I don’t know where it came from, but I just landed on this idea: what about alphabet tiles? It was quite quick after that.

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The idea stays abstract for a long time. Anybody can say that thing should be green and that one should stay red. There are two things going on. First, what are we trying to say about the piece – we could just fly in a sign and say “bathroom” and another one saying “school” or a sign saying “teacher” and in terms of storytelling that would be ok. But what does a teacher look like? That’s way after how you decide what to say. We spend a lot of time working out the mood of the story. That’s as much to do with the lighting, sound, atmosphere as the scenery.

The skills of a set and costume designers are different. If I say I want nine desks to come out of the floor I need to know – even if I’m not the engineer – that this is possible. If I want to put Trunchbull in the costume that he’s in, I need to know that I can get that exaggerated shape and fabric. But I’m not making  the costume – I’m drawing it. I’m not making the desk come out of the floor, I’m saying I’d like that to happen. And then other brilliant people come along and make it happen.

Could I be a fashion designer? No, because I don’t know enough about the business of it and you have to. Do I have an opinion about what looks good on people? Yes. And if I had the resources, could I get involved in all of that? Yes. Every morning, when we get dressed, we’re making design decisions based on our wardrobes. But can a fashion designer do my job? Absolutely. Can the man on the street? Yes. It’s about access to doing it. I don’t think any of us are protected species in any way. It’s where we’ve tumbled along. It’s choosing from what your resources are.

Thinking about the different types of audience is a rabbit hole of torture. You just make it good. You have to respond to what the writers are doing. It would be rubbish if school desks flew in from above. Because there would be lines on them and they would get in the way. It’s more exciting when things come up from the floor. It’s energising – you’re no expecting it.

We honestly thought this would be a six week run in Strafford for a Christmas show, when it launched in 2010.

But it taps into the brilliant truth about life: kids are little adults, adults are little kids. And we meet in the middle somewhere. This show occupies that space. It’s not patronising to kids. The value of the letter A on a tile in your hand – I’m not talking about Scrabble – has the same value as in the hand of your two year old when she is learning to read and speak. She’ll look at it and think that could be the beginning or middle or end of a word. All of this occupies that space where we share an exciting, exhilarating game.

When I’m asked what I do, I’m always a bit embarrassed. It’s not really a job is it? You have to fight the practicalities until later down the line otherwise you’d never get anywhere. Part of the job is to stay playful. I suppose that’s it, I don’t treat it like a job. And I get to sit alongside people with galloping imaginations. That’s an absolute privilege.

To celebrate Roald Dahl’s centenary year, we’ve partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company to offer you the chance to win a gloriuptious family ticket to see Matilda the Musical. The prize also includes an overnight stay for four at St. Martin’s Lane hotel in London’s West End, plus a phizz-whizzing £1,000 to spend at Jigsaw. Enter online here.

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