Daf James, Hannah McPake, Lucy Rivers
Gagglebabble, National Theatre Wales, Wales Millennium Centre
Tramshed, Cardiff

Adam Redmore & Hannah McPake Credit: Kirsten McTernan
Adam Redmore & Joe Shire Credit: Kirsten McTernan
Hannah McPake & Lucy Rivers Credit: Kirsten McTernan

It's safe to say that the centenary of the birth of author Roald Dahl is not going unnoticed in Cardiff, his birthplace (although he spent relatively little time here). An outdoor theatrical event entitled The City of the Unexpected is due to dominate the weekend (weather permitting); and his children's books are well represented in a beautiful exhibition of the work of illustrator Quentin Blake, currently on at the National Museum of Wales.

And, on Dahl’s 100th birthday, as social media timelines filled with pictures of schoolchildren dressed as Oompa-Loompas, Wonderman opened here, following a successful run on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Gagglebabble’s previous show, The Forsythe Sisters, was staged in the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, the very building in which Dahl was christened (although, in the interim, it had to be rescued from dereliction, re-built and transplanted). Wonderman takes place in The Tramshed, a new city-centre(ish) venue. Primarily a concert-hall, it is well-suited to the company’s brand of unashamedly lurid gig-theatre.

Eagle-eyed audience-members will notice the World War 2 pilot stationed at the bar, making notes, before the band strikes up, and a 1940s-themed mini-concert commences. Presently, the airman is called up onto the stage, and we are ushered, courtesy of Hayley Grindle’s simple but effective design and Amy Leach’s woozy direction, into a dreamworld.

The show takes its lead from Dahl’s contention that it was the “bump on the head” he received after being shot down during the war which turned him into a writer. Thus, Adam Redmore’s delirious protagonist finds himself bandaged in a hospital bed, assailed by bizarre characters in a number of unfortunate scenarios.

This conceit gives the company licence to cherry-pick from Dahl’s large catalogue of stories for adults. Therefore, as well as drawing on much of his autobiographical, war-time material, creators Daf James, Hannah McPake and Lucy Rivers (James is credited with the script and lyrics and Rivers with the music) ensure that the fictional Dahl becomes involved with dangerous landladies, meat-cleaver-wielding gambling enthusiasts and hapless vegetarians. And, yes, the leg of lamb does make an appearance.

Redmore is perfectly cast as the stiff-upper-lipped airman who seems to have no choice other than to adopt whatever roles his fevered visions force upon him; the multi-talented Rivers and McPake throw themselves full-bloodedly into a variety of comic and tragic characterisations, as well as singing, and joining the band when necessary; and the ebullient Joe Shire is especially enjoyable as the bloodthirsty Man From The South.

The live band—James Clark, Pete Komor, and Mark O’Connor—is highly accomplished, contributing greatly to the period atmosphere. Sometimes, though, the actors struggle to make themselves heard above it; much of the detail from the story entitled “Pig” was lost on the night I attended.

Wonderman certainly doesn’t stint on the darkness inherent in Dahl’s work, but it still manages to be celebratory, both of his legacy and of the human capacity for creating some kind of order out of chaos. This is jolly fun at its most sinister.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith

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