Writer: Enda Walsh, adapted from the novel by Roald Dahl
Director: John Tiffany
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
Apparently inspired by its creator’s distaste for facial hair – “Do something against beards” was his notebook instruction-to-self – The Twits now takes its place as the latest Roald Dahl adaptation to make it to the London stage, following the great successes of the musical versions of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in recent years. “Mischievously adapted” (or so the publicity boasts) by Enda Walsh, the show marks a rather rare foray into family entertainment for the Royal Court (though it’s been included as the final production in the theatre’s “Revolution” season), and the unusual spectacle of kids taking their seats in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs is delightful to see. Alas, the production itself may result in more bemusement than enchantment overall, though, since Walsh’s adaptation, directed by John Tiffany, has turned out more odd than anything else.
Dahl’s tale of a repulsive twosome forever dreaming up new ways of tormenting one another can be read as a barbed portrait of coupledom, with the hostility of married life placed right on the surface. For kids, though, the book’s special appeal clearly lies in the scatology and rudeness of the Twits’ tricks – worms in spaghetti, glass eyes in beer – and the sheer glee with which the author presents the activities of these abhorrent adults behaving badly.
In the stage version, though, the Twits’ tricks against each other are skirted over surprisingly quickly, and their disgustingness is disappointingly down-played. Instead, Walsh (understandably but not very inventively) has supplemented the slim story with a rather weak new strand. Here, in a search for new individuals to torment (beyond the family of monkeys that they keep caged), the Twits invite a group of circus performers (played by Sam Cox, Christine Entwisle and Dwane Walcott) to their property to retrieve the fairground that they previously stole from them. But this element never really takes off, and the show’s attempts at rough, anarchic spirit feel fairly forced throughout.
True to Court form, a hefty dose of class consciousness has also been added to the mix in Walsh’s take. These Twits are posh, their prey from Wales and Yorkshire, and, at one cringe-making moment, Mr. Twit even admonishes his victims with that oh-so-loaded insult “Plebs!” It’s evidently a portrait of England that Walsh is aiming for here: note the dropped place names and the odd spot of Morris Dancing. But the attempt to build a variant of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem out of this material seems misguided at best, and Dahl’s subversive nastiness finally gives way to an all-too-cosy (and even downright preachy) tribute to the values of family, community and solidarity in this account.
In addition, Walsh seems to be striving to make the play a piece about performance. But this element also feels strained. A highly promising end-of-Act-One metatheatrical flourish comes to nothing, and the interludes in which the monkeys (Glyn Pritchard, Cait Davis, Aimee-Ffion Edwards and Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins, who sing sweetly and move in suitably simian style) are enlisted to enact past events put a drag on the show, not least because they reduce the Twits themselves to the last things we want them to be: mere spectators rather than active participants in the drama.
Tiffany’s production has some inventive visual touches, and its star is undoubtedly Chloe Lamford’s striking set which suggests carousel and porthole as it evokes the interior and exterior of the Twits’ dwelling. Although a good deal less grotesque in appearance than one would wish for, Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan also do their best as the couple, with Dolan the more successful in wresting some comic mileage from flat lines and such filler as a “Queen’s speech” interlude and a set-piece that finds Mrs. Twit rocking out to (yes) “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But little here feels organic or cohesive, and the show – not so much “mischievously” as messily adapted – fails to find enough of a dramatic centre to provide a truly satisfying night.
Runs until 31 May | Photo Manuel Harlan