Roald Dahl, adapted by David Wood
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Macy Nyman as Sophie and John Seaward as The BFG Credit: Ian Tilton
Richard Booth as Bonecruncher and Philip Bosworth as Fleshlumpeater Credit: Ian Tilton
Sarah Finigan as cast, Emma MacLennan as cast, and Macy Nyman as Sophie Credit: Ian Tilton

The Octagon hasn't been scoring particularly well critically with its Christmas shows of late, but this year it has brought in Sarah Esdaile, who directed the Octagon's award-winning James and the Giant Peach for Christmas 2006, to direct another Roald Dahl classic.

Once again, the adaptation is by prolific children's playwright David Wood, as were almost all Dahl adaptations until his recent West End renaissance. It is the story of the BFG, the Big Friendly Giant, who kidnaps Sophie from her home at the orphanage (of course a Dahl heroine can't have parents) as he can't risk a human being having seen him.

However, as his name suggests, he is not one of the bone-crunching giants that eat people, but a nice one who goes around at night giving people nice dreams. He has a unique way of talking, not so much in malapropisms but in charming made-up words that either sound like the real words or conjure up a wonderful image of their meaning.

This does produce an incongruously signposted "issue" moment on literacy as he suddenly gets sad about his inability with words, even though all the other giants speak in the same way, but it soon passes.

The other giants are seen eating people in a great puppet sequence in Sweden, and are then heard plotting to take their rampaging to England. Sophie says they must warn the Queen, but the only way to make her believe them is if the BFG can tell her through a dream.

There are two main elements to this adaptation that don't always come perfectly together: Wood's script and Esdaile's realisation with her designer Janet Bird. The script works fairly well at expanding the original story, but some scenes can be heavy on words and the comedy a bit forced.

Esdaile's production, however, has some magical touches, right from the opening movement routine in the orphanage as the orphans get ready for bed, through some lovely puppet and shadow puppet scenes and slick changes of scene conducted by pyjama-clad actors. The wonderful design has a home-made feel that goes across the set and costumes, with flashes of newsprint and cardboard running through everything.

The most striking design element has got to be the FaceTime call from the Queen to the BFG in her garden on a giant iPhone with hand-drawn icons: a brilliant touch. But it is a stage on which a duvet can become a chandelier, and real-life Sophie can vanish from the middle of the stage and instantly appear on the platform as a puppet.

Macy Nyman makes her professional debut as Sophie, and does a pretty decent job. John Seaward's BFG is lumbering and loveable, but his booming giant's voice can make the lengthy stretches of dialogue a little monotonous and not always easy to understand.

Roddy Peters, Richard Booth and Philip Bosworth look great as the nasty giants with their papier mâché heads and single giant's arm and leg, and they also each play several other roles. Sarah Finigan is very funny as the dull teacher Miss Plumridge in the dream who is suddenly compelled to dance and is also good as the Queen. Emma MacLennan completes the cast effectively in several roles.

Of those two elements, the production is far more impressive than the script, which makes me wonder whether Esdaile could have told more of the story visually and scrapped a lot of the dialogue to make a more consistent production.

However as it is, this is an impressive show, the best festive show from the Octagon for some years, and deserving of a much fuller auditorium than it had on this snowy Friday press night performance.

Reviewer: David Chadderton