The Magic of Roald Dahl on Stage
Last week I took a trip down to the Royal Court to witness bucket-loads of domestic violence and grievous bodily harm... at the hands of Roald Dahl's infamous (and revolting) pair, The Twits! 'Mischievously' adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh and directed by John Tiffany, this production embodies one of three Roald Dahl classics that are currently being brought to life eight shows per week in London's West End. The other two adaptations are, of course, the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed production of Matilda The Musical (which picked up an extraordinary 7 Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical) and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures' big budget smash Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical (which picked up 2 Oliviers).
Jason Watkins & Monica Dolan as Mr. & Mrs. Twit
(Photo by Tristram Kenton)
It seems that audiences, both young and old alike, just can't seem to get enough of Mr. Dahl's famous stories. What is it that makes them so endlessly appealing and why are they the perfect match for the stage? I also got to thinking about the three Dahl novels I would most like to see on the West End stage next...
Perhaps the biggest factor that attracts producers to invest in Dahl stage adaptations are the books' multi-generational appeal. James and the Giant Peach was first published in 1961. Matilda made her literary debut in 1988. Dahl's most well-known books span almost three decades, in terms of their release dates, and they are still as popular and relevant to children of today's generation as they were back in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Many parents remember fondly their first encounters with Dahl's beloved characters and, in today's culture, this is one of the few shared experiences they can have with their children. After all, there were no Gruffallos or Room on the Brooms when they were growing up. It is those same parents that will be forking out money for West End tickets and why not pick a show each family member relates to?
Another argument for theatrical success results from the popularity of the stories in other forms of media. As if the books alone were not reason enough, there have been numerous live action and animated film adaptations released over the years, which help reach an even wider audience. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was cinematically immortalised in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, and again in the less popular Tim Burton remake in 2005 with Johnny Depp as the famous chocolatier. Other notable releases include the TV movie of Danny the Champion of the World starring Jeremy Irons in 1989, The Witches in 1990 starring Anjelica Huston, Danny DeVito's americanised Matilda in 1996, the hybrid live-action/animated feature of James and the Giant Peach also in 1996, and animated features of The BFG in 1989, and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Even as recent as last year, one of the Christmas highlights was the TV movie of Esio Trot - an adorble love story starring Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman (and an army of tortoises) - and the future is also looking bright for Dahl fans, as Stephen Spielberg's adaptation of The BFG is scheduled to hit cinemas in July 2016, with Mark Rylance and Penelope Wilton both taking on leading roles.
Kerry Ingram as Matilda
(Photo by Tristram Kenton)
The strange worlds Roald Dahl conjures up and the depths of his characters' imaginations that are explored are a perfect match for the theatre. It must be a dream come true for a Scenic Designer to be handed a Roald Dahl novel and be told: “Now, go work your magic!” That goes for the costume designers, sound and lighting designers too. The RSC's colourful and eye-catching set of Matilda The Musical, mostly comprised of children's building blocks, may be regarded as 'iconic' in the years to come. Both unique and totally complimentary, it has played a huge part in the musical's ongoing success and has more than contributed to the production becoming its own entity, seperate from the original novel and previous film adaptation. In addition, many have argued that the jaw-dropping sets of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical are worth the price of admission alone, and the Royal Court has done an excellent job in creating the revolting and at times quite magical world ruled over by The Twits, to a smaller but extremely effective scale.
Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka with the Cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
(Photo by Johan Persson)
So, of course, not wanting to oversaturate the market with Roald Dahl expectations, we are more than happy to wait until the end of The Twits' limited engagement and until Charlie and Matilda's popularity wains off (if it ever does!). But if those productions do end up closing in the not-too-distant future, here is my Top 3 picks for future West End adaptations:
Number 3: The BFG – The most recent stage adaptation of this popular classic took place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from November 2014 to January 2015. I would love to see how the Giants would be brought to life on the West End stage. Depending on the popularity of next year's Stephen Spielberg film, this could be a safe bet for producers in the years to come.
Number 2: James and the Giant Peach – The Birmingham Stage Company toured a production of this in Autumn 2013 and another musical version premiered in Seattle around the same time. I think the story and characters would lend themselves brilliantly to different forms of puppetry. In the same way that Julie Taymor imagined actors playing animals on stage, I'm sure the creative minds of the West End can come up with new and exciting ways of portraying the insects inside the peach.
Number 1: The Witches - Although there has already been a West End stage adaptation starring comedian Ruby Wax at the Wyndhams Theatre in 2005, this is my favourite Dahl novel and I truly believe it should be given the full West End musicalisation treatment. And could I please be completely unoriginal and request the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as The Grand High Witch? Thank you very much.
Roald Dahl's The Twits continues at the Royal Court Theatre until 31 May 2015.
Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com