Writer: Roald Dahl
Adapter: David Wood
Director: Teresa Ludovico
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The BFG is very much a show of two halves. Before the interval, we meet Sophie, who lives in an orphanage overseen by the cruel Mrs Clonkers. Unable to sleep one night, she inadvertently sees something she shouldn’t, and is whisked away by a giant to his cave lair in Giant Country. As the giant explains, people mustn’t know he exists or they will want to capture him and put him in a zoo. His cave is dark and scary, but he quickly explains that he is the BFG, the big friendly giant, unlike the others who like nothing more than eating people. So principled is he that he only eats the snozzcumber, a truly awful—tasting vegetable. As he and Sophie get to know one another, she learns that it is he who, with a special trumpet-like instrument, blows dreams into the sleeping minds of people everywhere. He collects, mixes and distributes them, aiming for all to have lovely dreams. But the other giants, the ones who enjoy eating people, are on the rampage, raiding orphanages. At first it seems Sophie and her new friend are powerless to stop them until she has the brainwave of asking the queen for help. A special dream is mixed for her to help convince her of the existence of giants and, after some discussion, the queen mobilises the military to try to solve the problem. It is probably no spoiler to say that all ends well for all the good guys; less so for the flesh-eating giants.
The first half is mainly set in the BFG’s cave. The stage is largely empty with pools of blackness. The area is peopled by dark things, cast members dressed in black and wearing masks. The whole is rather balletic and reminiscent of the Japanese theatre. A quick perusal of the programme reveals that director Teresa Ludovico has been collaborating with Setagaya Public Theatre on Tokyo for over ten years and the influence is clear. At the same time, the first half is also absolutely European, with a breathtaking mix of dance, aerial and gymnastic skills on display. The largely bare set is very effectively used to provide a slightly unsettling experience, a showcase of performance art from a very talented ensemble. Act two is largely within Buckingham Palace. This is much lighter, the humour much more to the fore. Mike Goodenough’s turn as the Queen is a delight; while he may have little physical resemblance to her, he still manages to be quite convincing. The scuttling valets, servants and corgis give a lasting impression of how it must be to wake every day as absolute monarch with all of one’s needs catered for.
Dahl is of course, known for his humour and light touch contrasted with larger-than-life and generally irredeemable baddies, with a generous helping of toilet humour too. The story of the BFG is no exception, and the staging and direction work together to be faithful to his vision. The dark areas are truly dark, but never overstep the mark so as to become too scary for the younger audience members, who are rapt throughout. At this performance, the level-headed heroine, Sophie, was played by Lara Wollington. She gives a quite outstanding performance, also demonstrating considerable dancing skills. The real issue is providing a giant. Joshua Manning is pretty tall, especially in his platform soles, but is still rather shorter than the usual fairytale giant; no matter, his movements, and some clever use of perspective enable him to grow in our imaginations. His performance is quite perfect; naïve, joyous, childlike, principled. He copes admirably well with the giant’s Unwinesque language, making his pronouncements true verbal poetry. The bad giants are never seen clearly, being suggested by projections and huge feet and hands occasionally onstage to bully the BFG or steal away orphan children before gobbling them up.
To call the rest of the cast the ensemble feels rather unfair. Absolutely critical to each scene, they provide spectacle and movement. Whether as dark things before the interval, gliding crablike around the stage, or as courtiers and the heads of the military in the second, they are the mainstay of the piece. They even play instruments at times – accordion, trombone, cello. Indeed, it is difficult to believe the cast is so small when they come to take their bows, so well are the characters differentiated. With a variety of skills on display, they are uniformly excellent. The set, lighting and sound designs of Robert Innes Hopkins, Peter Mumford and John Leonard complement the action effectively, helping create the moods and emotions we go through as the show progresses, supported by ethereal music written by Frank Moon and Martin Riley
Faithful to Dahl’s world, this an enchanting and absorbing trip into his imagination. Not a traditional panto, of course, but a thrilling introduction to theatre for any child
Photo: Robert Day | Runs until 24 January 2015