Anarchy in the UK: Aussie comic Tim Minchin is fomenting childish revolt after getting his hands on Roald Dahl

His musical of Roald Dahl's 'Matilda' for the RSC opens one night, his UK arena comedy stand-up tour the next. Is it any wonder Tim Minchin is going ape?

Look at my eyes." Tim Minchin has not been sleeping well – and with good reason. The Aussie musical comic has been a busy boy recently, preparing for the consecutive opening nights of both his new musical for the Royal Shakespeare Company, based on Roald Dahl's Matilda, and a UK arena stand-up tour in cahoots with a 55-piece orchestra. "I've been insanely stressed," he says. "I have to go to bed shattered or my heart just goes whoom."

Going to bed shattered presumably isn't hard to achieve – today, or at any time over the past five years. In 2005, Minchin brought his piano-and-jokes shtick to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time, and secured the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer. His subsequent rise has been both spectacular and stealthy. Without the usual TV overexposure, and despite being billed the "Richard Dawkins of comedy" for his rationalist subject matter, the 35-year-old has established himself as our favourite adopted rock-star comic.

I can't better Minchin's own explanation of his success, which – in its matter-of-factness about his own powers – is typical of the man. "If you're a jazz or classical connoisseur, you can go any night of the week and see a musician 10 times better than me, and have your mind blown. But most people never see someone really playing an instrument; really going at it hard and enjoying their craft." Make that crafts, plural. Minchin's wordplay is as dexterous as his ivory-whacking fingers.

His success is easily explicable, then – but it was also wholly accidental. Throughout his twenties in Perth, Australia, Minchin was a jobbing actor and writer, supplying tunes for local theatres and playing keyboards in a covers band. The comedy career snuck up on him, when audiences at the 2003 Melbourne Festival found his debut cabaret show funnier than he expected. Yet the transformation was, and remains, tentative. Minchin's shows feature non-comic songs alongside the funnies. His most famous number, a nine-minute Beat poem called "Storm", in which Minchin tears into a credulous New Ager at a dinner party, is as serious as it is funny. He includes anti-superstition material in each of his shows "not because I'm trying to educate people, but because most of what I think about is how beautiful nature is, and how wacky it is that people believe shit that doesn't seem to be the case".

Then there's Matilda, on which Minchin has been working for a year. First contact with the RSC, which invited him to add music and lyrics to playwright Dennis Kelly's book, was a transformative moment for him. Not least because of the serendipity: 10 years previously, he had applied to the Dahl estate for stage rights to that very novel. "Like nearly everyone," he says, "Dahl is embedded in my sense of child-ness. As soon as I encountered Matilda, I was struck by [the feeling of] how is that not a musical yet?"

The Minchin-Matilda connection is simple to discern. She is the abused child genius who wreaks revenge on the adult world. He, kohl-eyed and shock-haired, plays the delinquent child in his stand-up – before sitting at the piano and proving himself a prodigy. The quality in his new musical that most excites Minchin is its "promotion of anarchy. The thesis Dahl visits again and again is that children, if they use their childishness, their mischief and ingenuity, if they don't sit in front of tellies but read books and be adventurous, can overwhelm their grown-up oppressors."

His excitement about the project extends beyond his belief that he's made a great show. It relates to the fact that he's found himself again. "Writing music-theatre is what I started doing when I was 17," he says. "I was never a good pop musician, as I write theatrically: dense lyrics that tell stories and music that dabbles in all sorts of styles. I've re-found my thing, but now with a load of confidence as I have a successful career, so I don't have to hate myself every morning. And it's the RSC who asked me to do it, so I can't be a total chump."

Does that mean comedy was an aberration? Not exactly. Minchin has a vexed relationship with stand-up. "There's something dirty and sleeping-with-a-hooker about comedy," he says. "It's an artistic one-night stand. Once you've heard it, it's spoilt. Once you've had it, it's dirty." By contrast, he describes in awestruck tones how, halfway through creating Matilda, Dennis Kelly axed a character for whom Minchin had written his two best songs. Minchin was distraught – "it took me three months to get over it" – but now hymns the episode as an example of the cut-and-thrust rigour of artistic collaboration that solo stand-up denies him.

He is also wary of the narcissism of stand-up – because "I've got that in me," he admits. As if we needed telling. One of his songs, which names and crucifies a reviewer who one-starred Minchin's Edinburgh debut, is the last word in thin-skinned aversion to criticism. Minchin's capacity for introspection and obsessiveness is likewise easy to detect. He is breezy and friendly in interview, but now and then worries at a question like a dog with a bone. Repeatedly, he tells me what will and won't read well in this article. After the tape has been switched off, he regales me and his PR with lyrics from his new songs.

But he is still committed to comedy – albeit as one activity among many, which will one day include acting, he hopes, "and writing straight plays, if I can. And recording albums of non-funny songs." His comedy can be collaborative, too, as Minchin hopes to prove with his orchestra tour. The plan was to bring that show from Australia, where it originated, to the UK in lieu of the new stand-up set that Matilda has prevented him writing. But Minchin ended up writing a "two-thirds' new" show anyway. "I didn't want just to take a show from a smaller venue and put it in a big venue. I wanted a show that couldn't be anywhere but an arena." And besides, "I saw Muse at Wembley Stadium and I thought, I have to make it even more stupid than that."

Several recent comedy events – Monty Python's reunion at the Albert Hall, Barry Humphries' Last Night of the Poms – have twinned orchestras and comedy to lumbering effect. Is Minchin worried his new backing band will clip his wings? "You can't just staple them on," he admits, "because all they'll do is make your songs sound more like songs and less like comedy. An orchestra is funniest when it's doing massive classical turns in the service of stupid ideas." He tells me with joy that the whole orchestra will sing "motherfucker" in his song about the Pope. Elsewhere, the show sends up what Minchin calls the "paradox" of arena comedy: "This idea that you're so big that you don't have to give people a good experience any more. My first song is about that, which obliges me to ensure that I'm the exception to the rule."

Hence the sleepless nights. "It's ridiculous that I have a musical at the RSC and an arena tour opening on consecutive nights," he says. He takes refuge, of course, in rationalism. "I keep telling myself that my stress isn't about logistics, it's just me coming to terms with the idea. And that shouldn't stress you, because it's just conceptual. If you can't get your head around it, don't. Just make the songs as good as you can, and when you walk out on stage, you either cope or you don't. And what I do know is, I'll cope," he says, relieved at the thought. "I'll probably be fine."

'Matilda' is previewing now at the RSC's Courtyard Theatre, Stratford (tel: 0844 800 1110). Tim Minchin and his Orchestra play Brighton tomorrow (tel: 0844 847 1515). For full details of the tour, visit timminchin.com

Musical leanings: Tim's top five shows

Jesus Christ Superstar

"I've loved this since I was a kid. In the original production, they had 30 members of the LSO in the pit, with the drummer, guitarist and bassist from Deep Purple, and a couple of guys from Motörhead. And on stage, Ian Gillan from Deep Purple playing Jesus. That's brilliant. And it's a genuinely atheist musical! It's so cool."

Starlight Express

"It changed my life. I saw it in London when I was 10, and there was a ramp that went behind me, it was loud and I knew all the songs. That power to blow your mind is what you want to remember."

Oliver

"Oliver is brilliant. As a kid I had a pianola that was my grandmother's and we used to sit around and sing all these songs. Most of the musicals I know, I know because we had a pianola roll of it."

Gilbert and Sullivan

"There was a Gilbert and Sullivan society in Perth, which I thought was the peak of theatrical production. Somewhere I got the joy of playing with words and making them rhyme, and I didn't listen to Tom Lehrer."

A Little Night Music

"Sondheim is incredible. Someone lesser writing a musical might write 'What fools are we'. But he writes 'Send in the clowns'. That's worth its weight in gold."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing