Roald Dahl, adapted by David Wood.
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Roald Dahl is quickly becoming as much a part of the Christmas theatre scene as the traditional pantomime, and when Dahl is performed on stage, the adaptation is almost always done by prolific children's playwright David Wood.
The Twits is a short novel about a repulsive, despicable married couple, Mr and Mrs Twit, and the nasty, horrible things they do to one another, the birds in their garden and their caged monkeys (called the Muggle-Wumps). A large part of the book is quite episodic, describing one unconnected event - usually a nasty practical joke - after another, with the actual story only coming in about halfway through. Wood's adaptation deals with this by mixing up the narrative with the earlier episodes, adding some extra story and introducing a narrator to recount sections of description from the book almost verbatim. The changes water down the story and sometimes change things that were better in the original, and the use of a narrator is a bit of a cop-out. To be fair to Wood on this last point, his adaptation is written to be set in a circus ring with the narrator as a kind of ringmaster; this production has abandoned this concept but kept in the introductions of the 'acts', which comes across a bit like a teacher introducing the acts at a school concert.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Ali Allen's set design, lit perfectly by James Farncombe, which has a great impact as soon as you walk into the theatre. Apparently constructed from roughly assembled scrap metal, the stage has the Twits' caravan on one side and the Muggle-Wumps' cage on the other, with an impressive metal tree rising up between them. The way the glue is spread across the branches of the tree by Mr Twit is ingenious, and the puppets of the younger Muggle-Wumps from puppet maker Naomi Parker are adorable. The Roly-Poly Bird, played by Ebony Feare, is covered in lights and flown in from the wings, which looks quite impressive, and the birds in the Twits' garden are also very effective. There are also a couple of scenes in the African jungle, which are green and colourful and make a wonderful contrast to the monochromatic home of the Twits.
Director Marcus Romer has assembled a cast of actor-musicians, an idea that has been very successful in earlier Octagon productions such as Eight Miles High and I Just Stopped By To See The Man, but they are only really used properly on a couple of songs. The rest of the music, from composer Ivan Stott, is recorded or played on various instruments by the narrator, Zoë Lambert, which is a shame as those full cast numbers really lift the production. There is quite a bit of audience participation, but the actors never really seem to connect with the audience in these sections; there is a world of difference between speaking lines to an audience then waiting for them to respond and truly interacting with an audience through scripted lines.
This is an impressive-looking production, due largely to the wonderful design from Ali Allen, with some lively moments, but is overall a little bland. However children who are familiar with Dahl's wonderful characters will no doubt love to see them brought to life on the Octagon's stage.
"The Twits" runs until 14 January 2006
Reviewer: David Chadderton