Earlier this year, Matilda Shapland appeared in an episode of CBBC’s The Dumping Ground as Emma, which featured a storyline around regular character Floss, and she previously had one of her first screen roles in the 2017 feature film The Time of Their Lives in the role of Eleanor alongside Joan Collins and Joely Richardson. Matilda’s stage career has seen her as Young Millie in the 2019 Chichester Festival Theatre production of The Butterfly Lion, she played Qui Qui Marx in Young Marx, with the show opening the new Bridge Theatre, and she starred as the titled character in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical. For her West End debut, Matilda was cast as Young Eponine in Les Misérables before going on to play Little Cosette. With theatres currently closed, Matilda has regularly uploaded covers to her YouTube channel and Instagram, with the first main upload being When Will My Life Begin from Tangled. We recently chatted to Matilda about filming as Emma in The Dumping Ground, performing in Chichester last year in The Butterfly Lion and playing Matilda in the West End.
This year, you appeared in an episode of The Dumping Ground, can you tell us about your character Emma and what was she like to play?
My character Emma was intended to be the goody-goody of the episode. She was the perfect child put there which made the main character of the storyline, Floss, feel as though she would never belong as a part of this family she was hoping to be adopted by during the episode. This character was quite different to myself, I usually find some way to make mischief for my parents unlike Emma, but somehow this made her incredibly fun to play. There was a moment when Floss had to throw a cake in my face during the scene and that stuck with me as being some of the most fun I have ever had on a set and I remember not wanting the day filming to end. There was just something very memorable about the way that Emma’s character holds herself that was incredibly interesting and enjoyable to portray and, although she wasn’t the biggest part, the filming process was quite intense so I did get to know her and her reactions back to front and that is always a lovely feeling to have such a grasp on a character.
How did it feel booking the role and what was the experience like filming for CBBC?
Booking the role was like an absolute dream come true. I had watched Tracy Beaker and The Dumping Ground all throughout my childhood and the idea that I could possibly be a part of what was such a large part of my life was so exciting. Everyone who I filmed with, cast and crew, were so incredibly welcoming and fun to work with. I especially remember the director (Sean Glynn) who was just so involved in each and every detail of the scene and making sure that it was as fun on set filming take forty as it was filming take one. I expected it to feel as though I was walking straight into a big corporate well-oiled machine of a TV programme but in reality, it just felt like a huge family. It was one of the greatest and most valuable experiences of my life.
You played Eleanor in the 2017 feature film The Time of Their Lives, what was this like to do and how were you involved in the storyline?
The Time of Their Lives was one of the first filming experiences of my career and it was the best introduction I could’ve ever had. I played the part of Eleanor, who was the granddaughter of the main character played by Joan Collins, whilst my character had an influence on the storyline, it was mainly Eleanor’s mother, played by Joely Richardson, who played the largest part in derailing and building the story. The filming took place in the South of France which was a pleasure in itself as I had never been outside of Disneyland in France and so getting to experience that was wonderful. I remember being more excited than ever to get to set, the idea of being part of a film was so beyond anything I had ever imagined when I said I wanted to be an actor at the age of six, and so the prospect of playing a part in a feature film was beyond even my wildest dreams.
Can you say about being on set of the film and having this as your first screen role?
As someone who had only ever been used to the stage, filming was almost a relief as instead of performing to 1100 people, I was performing to around forty and mistakes were easily fixed. However, it was a completely different style of performing that I had to adopt in order to play to cameras instead of a theatre. This was one of the best and most valuable learning curves I could have asked for. During filming, however, Joely Richardson stood out amongst all of the cast and crew as being one of the most incredible people to work with, she was one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and her acting was so inspirational and influential to my current style of performing now. We filmed in a glorious French house and it was the first big set I had ever been on. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed but everyone was so nice at easing me into the role and this new world I had stepped into.
In 2019, you performed at Chichester Festival Theatre as Young Millie in The Butterfly Lion, how was this?
The Butterfly Lion was one of the most special theatre experiences I ever had the privilege of being a part of. As a show, the story of unconditional loyalty and unlikely friendship made it unique and powerful. I worked with so many incredible actors who made the show so special, as the cast was fairly small, it felt like one large family which made rehearsals and the performance period feel so special and enjoyable. However, it did make the last performances one of the worst of my life, I don’t think I have ever cried so much as a result of leaving a show. My character Millie was a fiery and head-strong girl who was incredibly fun to play. Her sneaky and sometimes hilarious comments and her loyalty towards her childhood sweatheart Bertie were traits that meant so much to me and I treasured every moment I got to play her.
What did you enjoy most about being part of the production and performing in Chichester?
The show took place at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, which is very local to where I live. This was a stark contrast to performing in London or France and it meant that the friends I made were friends for life as they are already so local. It was a theatre I visited often as a child and it felt incredibly full circle to perform there. But as for the friendships I made, they were by far my favourite part of the show. The entire children’s cast were so unbelievably fun to work with and I really do feel as though I have made friends for life. Another joy of working on this show was that it was partly an original production and I got to watch it transform from a script reading to a full production that brought so much joy to every single audience member.
We understand you were part of the cast of XY for a musical theatre festival at The Other Palace, can you say more about this?
XY was another very special production in regard to the fact that I got to watch it grow from an idea to a production. I had influence over my wonderful character Rebecca, who was so inspiring with her glass half full outlook on the world. It was unlike anything I had ever done before, it felt like such an intimate, special performance considering the studio theatre at The Other Palace has quite a cabaret style feel to it. One of the actors I worked with was Max Reader, who is not only an amazing actor, but he was someone I knew from Matilda which helped to make quite a daunting process seem more familiar. Overall, as an experience and a show, XY was an amazing project to have been a part of.
How was it being part of the cast of Young Marx, where you played the role of Qui Qui Marx?
Young Marx was, in some ways, the perfect theatre experience. I got to work with some amazing actors such as Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll, which was an enormous privilege in itself especially as all they did was make me laugh (even when they weren’t supposed to) and gave me such fond memories of being on stage with such funny and brilliant people. One of the most memorable parts of the show was being directed by Nicholas Hytner, which was incredibly daunting at first but he was one of the most effective and funniest directors I have ever had. The fact that I was part of the show that debuted the new Bridge Theatre was also incredible and I never considered how big of a deal it was till I found myself at the press night opening event and I was greeted with faces that I had idolised since I was very little. I was the standby for that evening so I was not dressed my best in a T-shirt, some leggings and a Gryffindor scarf, but apparently, when you meet Maggie Smith, who compliments your scarf whilst you stand there, mouth wide open, not really knowing how you ended up here, is six-year-old me’s dream.
How did you find your time as Matilda in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical and what are some of your favourite memories from being in the show?
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. I suddenly found myself on a West End stage, performing a dream role, telling thousands of people a glorious story every single night. It was everything that I had ever wanted and more. The feeling when I stepped onto that stage for the first time at the Cambridge Theatre still sticks with me to this day. I was terrified. Excited, but incredibly and overwhelmingly terrified. I am usually really good with stage fright, but this was a new level. I never realised how important this character was to me until opening night and from that night onwards, everything felt like a whirlwind of hard work mixed in with the best time of my entire life. Working in a cast of kids who were all so passionate about performing was electric and the energy every night on that stage was addictive.
My favourite memory, however, came from my dress rehearsal when I sat there and watched Haley Flaherty sing My House for the first time with set lights and costume. The song had always made me sad, but as Matilda you are just not allowed to show any emotion on stage but I couldn’t help it, my eyes welled up and it was one of the first times theatre prompted an emotional response like that from me (now I cry at everything, literally everything) and hearing that song sung so incredibly by someone who knew the role like the back of their hand was my favourite moment of every show (that and singing Naughty and getting to jump on my bed). It was a year of my life I will honestly treasure forever and I said that The Butterfly Lion was one of the hardest last shows, but it wasn’t the hardest. My last night at Matilda was the saddest but happiest moment of my life, once it was over I suddenly appreciated that past year more than ever and all the great memories came flooding back, it was overwhelming but I hope that that is what my last night at every show will be like from now on because that is how you know how much something meant to you, when it ends and you can appreciate the effect that it had over your life.
Do you remember how you found out you’d booked the role and how did you prepare for your opening night?
I don’t think I have ever been more excited about something in my entire life. I am being honest, not even the new Fantastic Beasts films. I’d already gone through the audition process once before and I was told to come back next year, and so I did it again and I was terrified it was all for nothing. However, one day I am walking out my classroom at school, my hair very messy and my fifty different school bags hanging off my shoulders and I see my dad with a sign saying congratulations in the Matilda font that he is holding above his head. I drop all the fifty bags and run towards him and that is probably the most excited I have ever been in my life and the best reaction my dad has ever managed to get when telling me I have booked a role.
The rehearsal process was extensive, it was five days a week, and for the Matildas, when you get hold of that script that you have to highlight, it is incredibly scary but ten weeks during the summer holidays is enough to get you prepared and before I knew it, I was on that amazing stage with all of my friends and I hadn’t even blinked. Apart from being scared out of my shoes, that first night was everything I ever wanted and more and I wish I could go back to it now.
You made your West End debut in Les Misérables as Young Eponine before going on to play Little Cosette, what were both roles like to do?
Les Mis was the show that made me want to perform. It wasn’t my first experience on stage, I debuted at my local theatre as Gretl in The Sound of Music, but Les Mis changed my life. I went to see it at the cinema with my mum, and then I walked out the theatre and went to bed and early the next day, I went to go see it again with my dad. It was an obsession to say the least, I knew the whole thing back to front before my ninth birthday when I finally got to see it live at the Queen’s Theatre. When I got the role of Young Eponine, I screamed and ran around my house about a hundred times before I wore myself out, took a breather and then ran one hundred more laps.
The first day of rehearsals for Les Mis was unbelievable. I had admired the stage from afar and suddenly, there I was standing on it thinking, ‘this is my job now, I get to do this for a living’. That sounds crazy coming from a nine year old, thinking about a career, but even then I knew. I think, for Young Eponine, I had a total of three rehearsals and then I went up on that stage in a beautiful blue dress and got to act like an absolute brat for three minutes. But that was all I needed; those three minutes were enough. Not many people who aren’t part of the show know this, but the Young Eponine gets to go on for the song Look Down and act as a peasant girl and have a laugh with the adults behind the barricade.
And then Little Cosette came and that was a whole new kettle of fish. I often think of Little Cosette as my West End debut because that was the first time I got to sing by myself on a West End stage. And I milked it. There is a specific line in Castle on a Cloud when she says ‘She says Cosette I love you very much’ and I used to relish in looking down at the first two rows and singing it straight to them like I was a teacher telling them a story. There was never a more magical feeling as when I was on that revolve for the first time with a broom too large for my body, surrounded by the best set ever, and I slowly came face to face with the audience and started singing. After that it became like home. There is a specific moment during the bargaining scene in Les Mis where Monsieur Thénardier sits next to Cosette and the mics are turned off and the focus is not on them, and the wonderful actor portraying Thénardier, Cameron Blakely, who is a comedic genius, always whispered funny things to me to get me, who is supposed to be a traumatised child, to break. But I am very proud to say I never broke, not once.
Where does your love of performing come from and how did you start?
My love of performing came from school. A numerous number of roles in nativities got me hooked on performing on a stage. I think my most memorable role was as the smallest angel in my school’s nativity entitled The Smallest Angel. I was incredibly typecast as I was the smallest in my school and I basically spent the whole nativity having a temper tantrum but that was one of my first and probably most memorable title roles I’ve ever had. Ever since then I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. I never for one moment thought it would actually happen but I never wavered, no matter how many teachers said, ‘Do you have a backup plan?’ and I said, ‘No’ every time without fail until now, when a career in acting doesn’t seem as far away anymore.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I enjoy all theatre but mainly musicals. I am always asked my top five, but the truth is it changes every day. At this very moment, however, my favourites just so happen to be: Wicked (that will never change), Newsies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anastasia, Kinky Boots and Falsettos, I listen to these on repeat on a daily. I mean, I am the genius of long car journeys and there is nothing like an original cast recording.
When I am away from acting, at the moment I am usually at school, working on my A-Levels, but when I am not, I love to write. I have never had enough stamina to write a book, however many times I have tried, so I am currently working on a series of short stories to fill up my time. There is something that I find incredibly satisfying about a page filled with handwriting and scribbles that I just love and it is a way I can let out my creativity without annoying my friends with the non-stop singing of Broadway ballads.
You upload covers to Instagram and YouTube, what do you enjoy most about recording them and what are your future upload plans?
I started uploading more covers during lockdown when things were at a standstill. There wasn’t a way to perform and so I decided to do more on social media and I always love it when my friends release covers. But it fully started when I sung When Will My Life Begin from Tangled and the response was overwhelming, and I just kept doing it as it was the perfect way to fill the void of no theatre and to get myself out there more on my social media. I love being able to sing my dream roles for an audience without having to actually be in the show. The recording process is actually not as enjoyable as I would like, I love performing and so having to sing with the music through headphones makes it quite difficult to fully portray the message of the song. However, I think I have gotten used to it now and my performance skills are probably better off for it now. In the future I want expand more on social media so that I can reach a bigger audience and collaborate with others in order to bring theatre to the Internet for people to enjoy.