Danny the Champion of the World
Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by David Wood
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
After a brief flirtation with Dickens last year, the Octagon returns to its tradition of David Wood adaptations of Roald Dahl stories for this year's Christmas production of Danny the Champion of the World, the last festive offering from outgoing artistic director Mark Babych.
Danny and his dad live in a caravan attached to the town's petrol station and car repairers. Danny's mother is dead and he helps his dad out with the family business, but his dad also has a penchant for poaching pheasants on the country estate of the hated brewery tycoon Mr Hazell. Dad refuses to serve Hazell when he is rude to Danny, and in revenge and in an attempt to get hold of their land cheaply, Hazell persuades the town council to threaten to evict Danny and his dad due to the state of the caravan. Dad tries to think of a plan to ruin Hazell's October grouse shoot, to which he has invited lots of important people, to humiliate him.
The script combines Dahl's dark storytelling, his moral questioning and his support for listening to the views of children with Wood's usual silliness and audience participation, although this short story does feel a little stretched to fill out the running time. Occasionally Danny's narration is over-used, describing things that we do not need to know or have just seen.
Stephen Chapman as Danny's dad, despite having problems with his voice during the reviewed performance, gives by far the most natural performance of the production, closely followed by Elianne Byrne as the vicar's wife and the council inspector. However this style contrasts sharply with most of the other characters, which are mainly portrayed as over-the-top, grotesque caricatures. Morgan George plays Hazell with a strong Brummie accent as something approaching a pantomime villain with his obligatory pair of incompetent henchmen. Martin Miller is the jovial, benevolent policeman, Helen Kay is the posh doctor and the stiff, angular head teacher and Thomas Aldersley plays a few different roles, including the very likeable taxi driver who does a great job of chatting humorously to the audience during the interval. In the title role, Des O'Malley competently pulls off the usual adult-playing-a-child role, but sometimes he manages to inject some real emotion into the part.
The real star, though, is Helen Goddard's wonderful set, which makes an immediate impression on entering the theatre. Although mostly consisting of oil drums and corrugated metal, it still manages to have a warm, cartoonish feel to it, with a great use of a circular raised stage in the middle and a very effective and clever moon effect on the upper level.
The production is stuffed with visual and physical techniques that seem to be, like the previous excellent production of The Venetian Twins, influenced by the work of companies like Kneehigh or The Right Size, but here these techniques are inserted a little half-heartedly and not always utilised as fully as they could be. The puppet chickens are effective when they are first seen but become a little repetitive. The helpers in overalls bring things on and off and supply sound effects and just occasionally get laughs from their attitude towards their work, but there is nothing like the playfulness that Kneehigh injects into this same technique. Even the splinting of the broken ankle by the doctor could probably have been done better by someone who has watched Casualty or seen a couple of old westerns.
There are many more effective moments, such as when it rains pheasants, some of the chases through the audience, the representation of driving a car, the reveal of the woken pheasants and plenty more. However this is a wonderful-looking but uneven production, stuffed full of ideas that have not all been carried through to be as effective as they could be.
Running until 17th January
Reviewer: David Chadderton