It seems the Lyric Hammersmith theatre is going through a bit of a dark phase at the moment, as following on from Sarah Kane’s Blasted there is now the twisted and brutal world of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected in this new adaptation by Jeremy Dyson. Dyson is an accomplished writer already, winning fame through his work on The League of Gentlemen and winning and being nominated for a number of prestigious awards for his short stories, including winning the 2010 Edge Hill Award. The combination is thus an obviously exciting prospect.
It loses none of the gruesome world that provides the background for the deceptively cruel characters. Reading even a small way into the life of Roald Dahl and you begin to understand why this adaptation is as dark as it is. The abusive scene at boarding school echoes his own life and was clearly the informative period that inspired his work. The stories themselves work to disguise the subtle shadows beneath a veneer of uneasy humour. At many points throughout the show people were laughing and it was a mixture of comedy and awkward tension.
Probably the best thing about the show was the set. A fake back wall sat in the middle of the space as a revolving circle of stage would turn, the area behind the wall being prepared for the next scene as the current scene was being played. The props were mostly simple but all were good at setting the mood. The dark lighting was well engineered, lighting designer James Farncombe and costume and set designer Naomi Wilkinson make a good team, both understanding the mechanisms behind the show very well. The mechanisms to introduce the train and train station, namely the chairs on wheels and the drop-down wall were also very good and prove that the simplest solutions really are often the best.
The performances from the actors don’t let the action down at all. It can’t be easy to transition between so many characters so quickly, including the costume changes and differences in character. Each character was individual and different from the rest, which was a good achievement for such a small cast tackling a large number of characters that changes so quickly. They never looked lost or hasty, always having a collected and precise control of what was going on.
There was no obvious weak link in the cast. Trevor White attracted attention every time he was on stage, especially as the mysterious stranger who has a fondness for telling stories, and Nick Fletcher was also well suited to his roles, the difference being stark between his Perkins and his finger-friendly gentleman. George Rainsford also had a few characters that were very different; the senior at boarding school was utterly different to his young and ambitious American. The women are also give strong performances, Selina Griffiths making a good effort playing so many disenchanted wives and spinsters and Alexandra Maher mixing up an equally diverse mix of characters. The whole cast had a lot to deal with; the swiftness of changing from one character to the next, one set to the next, one costume to the next, must have been difficult to keep up with and must have presented a challenge to keep the plot flowing throughout.
It was a very controlled performance throughout, which rendered both good and bad results. It was good because it gave the show a sense of detachment that worked well with the material. Because they are all forays into the power of imagination, it was quite unsettling having the sparse and dream-like stage (I’m a big fan of the clock that remains throughout) seem so far away and surreal. The actors were very sharp and precise, giving it a stylised feel that also fitted the quick and detached angle, working well. The whole thing seemed very mechanical, as if they were going through the motions of the show. This added to the detached atmosphere but I’m not sure whether or not it was a good thing. The scenes themselves moved from one to another with a swiftness that characterised this formality.
I think that’s the main problem with the show. It’s almost formal. As an exploration into imagination it is suitably dream-like and has the feel of a fairytale about it, however this does create the detachment of the half-waking half-sleeping world where we drift in and out of imagination and this runs the risk of being too detached. It ends with the narrator, a young child played well by Jonathan Dancinger, sitting on the train and encountering characters from the stories that have just been told. A good an fitting ending, leaving the show in your imagination as you leave, wondering what will befall the lonely child on the train.
It’s a good show that boasts a very good design, the stage and the costumes being suitable highlights. The acting is also strong and the whole show is done in a very surreal and imaginary way, which is good. It’s a good show and worth seeing for any Roald Dahl fan, and even if you’re not all that familiar with Tales of the Unexpected or any more of Dahl’s more adult fiction, it’s still very interesting to see.
Written by Roald Dahl; Adapted by Jeremy Dyson; Directed by Polly Findlay; at the Lyric Hammersmith; Starring Trevor White, George Rainsford, Nick Fletcher, Selina Griffiths, Alexandra Maher, Jonathan Dancinger; Runs from 14 Jan 2011 to 26 Feb 2011.
John Ord (26/01/2011)