Late starter is learning to live with idea of being famous

Dennis Kelly is co-creator of one of the most successful theatre shows in years. Nick Ahad spoke to him about Matilda and bringing his work to Yorkshire.

It took him a little while to get going, but once he did, he really didn’t stop.

Dennis Kelly is still getting used to the scale of the success of the musical Matilda he wrote with Tim Minchin. He is also getting used to being a “friend to the stars”.

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“We went to see the show last week together and when I’m sitting there, as far as I’m concerned I’m just with my mate Tim, but it’s when people come up to him to tell him they think he’s amazing and they love his shows and all that kind of thing that you’re suddenly reminded that ‘oh yeah, I’m with someone really quite famous’,” says Kelly.

With the sort of reviews he’s been enjoying for Matilda, which was based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, Kelly might have to get used to being that rare creature himself – a famous playwright.

Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it opened in Stratford before transferring triumphantly to the West End, Matilda is making Kelly a big name in British theatre – one review of the show said that “Kelly and Minchin suddenly look like the brightest prospects for British musical theatre since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice”. The pair want to work together again, but it’s a question of schedules permitting – and not just Minchin’s.

At the minute Kelly has several plays and three film projects written and ready to go, all in varying states of “getting on-ness”. There’s also the question of his television work lurking in the background if he can find the time – he is the co-creator and writer of BBC3 hit sitcom Pulling.

For the unassuming Londoner, it is quite a turn of events. Now 42, he came to writing late, not really starting until he was 33.

“It’s a long process, you spend a long time in meetings trying to get things to happen and people forever say that they like what you’ve written and would be interested in taking a look at your next thing, but you’re often waiting for the right person to like the right piece of work,” he says. “So you just spend your time trying to write things and get someone to pick them up and take an interest. It wasn’t until 2005 that I started writing full-time.” His first play, Debris, was well received, as were those that followed, including Love and Money, After the End and Orphans.

“I was making up for lost time and just doing as much stuff as possible,” he says.

In 2007 he wrote a play for the National Theatre’s Connections series called DNA and was asked by the RSC to work on a theatre version of Matilda, the story of a little girl with magical powers who takes on a terrifying headteacher. Both DNA, coming to Yorkshire this week, and Matilda have become what might well be considered significant moments in his wider career when stock is taken in the future.

“If I was smarter I might have been a bit more intimidated by writing Matilda, given that it was with Tim and it was based on Dahl’s work and it was the RSC, but it never really occurred to me,” he says. “I had done some work with the RSC previously and if I did think about the fact that it was Roald Dahl, I just considered that he didn’t sit there being intimidated by his own reputation when he was writing his work.

“I hadn’t actually seen any of Tim’s work so when I found out we’d be working together I went to meet him. He wasn’t ‘starry’ at all and when we started talking it was all about the work, so he just became a mate that I was working with.”

The second piece of work he was commissioned to write in 2007 was DNA. The National Theatre’s Connections Festival creates work specifically for a teenage audience and Kelly was one of a number of playwrights asked to come up with something. “They said write whatever you want for your next play, but bear in mind that you’re writing it for a teenage audience,” he says.

The result was DNA, which became a hit for the Connections programme – so much so, that it embarks on a national tour this week. Produced by Hull Truck the national tour of the show stops in Sheffield this week and has become part of the national curriculum. The play is particularly timely, dealing as it does with adolescent cruelty and the dark side of group mentality. Many have picked up on the fact that it is touring the country in the wake of last summer’s riots.

“It’s about group dynamics, cruelty, loss of individual identity,” says Kelly. “It’s not about the riots necessarily, it’s about these teenagers living in a climate of fear and without responsibility. It’s storytelling, which is what I’m always trying to do.”

DNA, Sheffield Crucible Studio, February 9 to 11; Hull Truck, February 14 to 18.