Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

Tall Story

THE B F G

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 2nd December, 2014

 

The REP’s big Christmas show this year is David Wood’s adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel – not one of his strongest but containing the quintessential elements of a Dahl classic nevertheless: horrible villains, a downtrodden but virtuous child protagonist, nonsensical words, and some scary moments.

Director Teresa Ludovico throws everything at the stage in the first act to bring Giant Country to life, with music, movement, masks and mime… There are circus skills and gigantic legs and hands – it’s like a bonkers Italian variety show rather the traditional fare and it works!  Especially in the transmission of the darkness and horror that runs through Dahl’s slender tale.

Lara Wollington (a former Matilda) is excellent as perky orphan Sophie.  Abducted by a giant (in a terrifying sequence) she soon befriends him and he reveals he’s not like other giants in that he refuses to eat the flesh of human children.  Weirdo.  Shunned by his peers, he faces the type of scorn and derision usually doled out to Vegans by meat-eating brutes.  Wollington is nothing short of perfect in the role.  She has a strong, clear and expressive voice, bags of energy and performs the quirky, jerky, sometimes balletic, movements with ease and ability.

In his Frankenstein footwear and waistcoat this Big Friendly Giant looks like a lecturer from Middle Earth Polytechnic but Joshua Manning fulfils this tall order superbly well, making the titular character a likeable sort and managing the mangled language with ease.  He may not be all that B of a G but he is certainly F.  With the aid of sound effects and the clever use of perspective, he stomps around, leading his new little friend through a series of moments, each of them beautifully staged by a talented and versatile ensemble, who will backflip as soon as look at you.

It’s all gloriously theatrical, a cavalcade of the performing arts, and carried off with such brio you are willing to overlook the fact that it’s largely padding to eke out the story until the interval.

In the second act we move from Giant Country to Buckingham Palace and the bedroom of Her Majesty the Queen of England.  Here, Sophie does a Michael Fagan, breaking in to warn Her Maj of impending giant-sized disaster.  Mike Goodenough’s Queen may resemble Benny Hill more than that lady off of the postage stamps but he’s more than good enough – a restrained panto dame who gets the funniest lines, which he delivers with pouting relish.

The other giants are left (largely) to the imagination and this makes them all the scarier..  Huge shadows are thrown across the backdrop and sometimes hands and feet appear.  It’s what we don’t see that scares us and talk of bones found outside an orphanage is particularly gruesome.

Hats off to the technical team.  Set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins, along with lighting by Peter Mumford, gives the piece a dreamscape quality, with mists and shadows contrasted with bursts of vibrant colour.  Frank Moon and Martin Riley’s unconventional score is played live under the musical direction of Riley himself on keyboards.  Percussionist Tom Chapman and guitarist Tom Durham are accompanied at various points by cast members on a range of instruments.  It all adds to the atmosphere and above all the fun.

Stylish and surreal, this BFG is an enjoyable alternative to the usual pantomimes on offer, a theatrical banquet with plenty to satisfy everyone.

Lara Wollington and Joshua Manning (Photo: Robert Day)

Lara Wollington and Joshua Manning (Photo: Robert Day)

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Digging for Victory

FANTASTIC MR FOX

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th December, 2013

 

This year’s family fun for the festive season at the Crescent is David Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s well-loved story, Fantastic Mr Fox – which makes for a fun bedtime read but is a bit thin when it comes to material for the stage.  In a nutshell: the eponymous Mr Fox provides for his family by stealing from three local farmers and businessmen, who take objection to the thieving and take direct action to destroy the fox, his family, and their habitat.  Mr Fox proves how fantastic he is by tunnelling away, leading his family and other woodland critters, to a network of tunnels right underneath the shops and stores of the farmers.  They need never show their furry faces above ground again.

This story of good and evil has a lot in common with Robin Hood – the fantastic Mr F uses his cunning to ensure survival.  And there are themes of destruction of the environment in the pursuit of misguided capitalistic concerns (badger cull, anyone?) and the exploitation of some animals at the expense of others.  Killing foxes is bad, says the play, and I’m predisposed to agree.  Man is the enemy of nature.

As the three baddies, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, Joshua Norris, Sophie Hamilton-Foad and Sam Malley, striding around on stilts so they tower over the animal cast, are clearly enjoying themselves, although of the three (and the entire cast) Malley demonstrates most commitment to larger-than-life characterisation.  Others show flashes of Malley’s energy but need to be more focussed in their delivery.  Marvellous Michael Jenkins makes what he can of the one-dimensional title role, moving with grace and control, and urgency when the need arises.  Jade Marshall sings well as Mrs Fox and there is some likable support (and narration) from Bob Martin’s Mr Badger.

Jennet Marshall’s are colourful, anthropomorphising the animals with half-masks, bushy tails and human garments.  The set is little more than painted flats, advertising fried chicken and cider, so we look to the action to give us atmosphere and mood.  Moments of comic business, such as hitting each other in the face with shovels, need sharpening up and brief intervals of the cast scurrying around to jolly music need focussing if we are to appreciate them fully.

I question the American accents – director Barry Dudley has them all speak with Southern drawls for no apparent reason.  Keeping the characters English might have, however subliminally, enabled the audience to make connections with what’s going on in the country today.

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Little Dahlings

Matilda
Cambridge Theatre, London, Saturday 21st January, 2012

Revolting children! – This is the title of one of the songs and usually my reaction to child actors on stage. Somehow, the RSC has put together a troupe of young performers that blows away all preconceptions of the quality and nature of the beast. They present a quadruple threat: they act, sing, dance AND they’re young.

The production survives the transfer from the RSC’s Courtyard and its thrust stage to the Cambridge’s 1930s proscenium with very few changes to the staging. Inevitably some of the immediacy of the experience is reduced because of the fourth wall, but this is still a funny, inventive and, perhaps unexpectedly so, very moving show.

Based on a Roald Dahl novel, its themes are beyond those that appear on the surface. Bad parenting is not just neglect and abuse. The opening number brilliantly satirises the kind of middle class breeder who brings their offspring up in the belief that they are a miracle, or a princess, only to give the world a generation of brats whose overinflated view of themselves leads to delinquency. These parents have the gall to blame teachers who accurately report that the child is less than perfect. This is the most pertinent comment the show makes on education. Elsewhere, opposing philosophies are polarised: Miss Trunchbull’s tyranny is contrasted with Miss Honey’s syrupy child-centred approach.

But this is not just a show about child-rearing and schooling. There is much to do with rebellion and civil disobedience, the overthrow of a dictator and the power of the imagination. There is plenty that is scathing about the dumbing-down of culture, with television held largely culpable. There is a beautiful song, performed on playground swings that arc out beyond the proscenium, which gives us a child’s-eye view of what it must be like to be an adult. It is poignant and charming and speaks to everyone. With music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the score has everything a musical should: Melodic songs with clever, witty lyrics that reveal character and develop plot AND speak to us of the human condition. This is art.

Bertie Carvel as deranged headmistress Agatha Trunchbull gives a colossal performance. Sinister, monstrous and very funny, he is compelling to watch and almost, but not quite, steals the show from the tiny leading lady, Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the eponymous Matilda who is astounding. It’s difficult to heap the praise on her she deserves without sounding patronising. She, and the rest of the children in the company, need to be seen to be believed and I defy anyone to detect anything stilted or parrot-fashion about them.

I really enjoyed Josie Walker and Peter Howe as Matilda’s parents. She is peroxide blonde, mutton dressed as Katie Price and he an oafish, wide boy used car salesman, all mouth and garish trousers. True Dahlian grotesques, their cruelty and selfishness are outrageous, their come-uppance well-deserved. But, as Matilda herself learns, there is more to life than revenge. She rescues her feckless father from a severed drubbing at the hands of the Russian mafia, proving that education indeed has its uses and in a touching moment of forgiveness, teaches him a lesson in humanity.

I make special mention of Gary Watson’s hilarious cameo as Matilda’s mother’s dance partner, Rudolpho but really the entire company is a cut above.

Rob Howell’s set, all building blocks, bookcases, and school desks that come up from the floor, is evocative and versatile. Director Matthew Warchus makes the stage a playground on which the cast have tons of fun. The final image of Miss Honey and Matilda walking off into the sunset, performing one final cartwheel each is beauty, simple and touching.

With its book by Dennis Kelly, Matilda is the best new musical currently in the West End but you may need some of its heroine’s superpowers to get yourself a ticket.