Monday, 20 April 2015

Theatre review: The Twits

With two Roald Dahl adaptations still doing good business in the West End, the Royal Court might look like it's piggybacking its way to a family hit, but The Twits isn't quite like Matilda, and certainly not like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like those shows, it has a somewhat surprising choice of playwright for the adaptation - Enda Walsh this time - but unlike those it can't rely on the audience's familiarity with the plot: The Twits is closer to a short story than a novella, so Dahl's original story is used up in about 15 minutes at the start and end of the stage version. In between, Walsh and director John Tiffany are free to make up their own new version of the story - perhaps that's why it's being promoted as a "mischievous adaptation" - which to me at least felt very much in the spirit of Dahl. Mr and Mrs Twit (Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan) are a horrible couple who hate bathing, children, other people in general, and most of all each other.

They do enjoy tricking and torturing people though, and many years previously they stole an entire fairground. They now decide they can have more fun torturing the carnival folk with the promise of returning their fairground to them. So they invite round the Tattooed Fortune Teller Lady (Christine Entwisle,) Yorkshire Terrier Man (Sam Cox) and Handsome Waltzer Boy (originally credited on the website as "Shy Waltzer Boy," but they cast Dwane Walcott, so.)

They delay them in their back yard for a year with promises of their fairground being just about to be delivered, while every so often getting their troupe of performing monkeys (Glyn Pritchard, Cait Davis, Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins and Aimeé-Ffion Edwards) to reenact the most traumatic moments of the carnival folk's lives for their own amusement.

But much as the book is made up of very short chapters mostly detailing the Twits' practical jokes on each other (most of which are dealt with in an early frying pan-fighting scene straight out of Bottom,) Walsh and Tiffany's production isn't so much about the story as about the way it's told, and regularly wanders off into bizarre flights of fancy - when you think things can't get much more surreal than Watkins singing "There's No-one Quite Like Grandma" while waving a shotgun around, along comes Dolan's demented version of the Queen's Christmas Day speech.

This being a Royal Court show, there's a political angle even to a children's show, right down to a quick dig at "plebgate." And Tiffany's regular collaborator Steven Hoggett is back to direct the movement, with particularly acrobatic turns from Edwards and Llewellyn-Jenkins as the Monkey Children. Throwing so much onto the stage doesn't always work - Martin Lowe's cinematic score is sometimes successful, others distracting, and the show takes some time to establish its tone - but while it's possible to nitpick at The Twits there seems little point: From the point of view of an adult this has lots of laughs, and judging by the reactions of children in my vicinity, it's the sort of show - thanks in no small part to Chloe Lamford's epic and surprising set - that will get them hooked on live theatre.

The Twits by Enda Walsh, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is booking until the 31st of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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