“It means, Mrs Twit, we’re going to have some fun”
Truth be told, I wasn’t really a fan of The Twits when I was a kid – the tales of worm spaghetti grossed my sensitive little soul out and I was much more at home reading about the delirious pleasure of the mixing of George’s Marvellous Medicine. So the news of the latest Roald Dahl adaptation to hit a London stage wasn’t one that necessarily filled me with the greatest of glee, especially since this version of The Twits is coming to the Royal Court via a “mischievous adaptation” courtesy of Enda Walsh, a playwright with whom I’ve had mixed experiences, and director John Tiffany.
And predictably, it is a curious confection that they’ve cooked up alongside the plate of wormy spaghetti which sent shivers down my spine once again. Aimed at “brave 8 year olds and their families”, it makes little concession to being a traditional family show and mines a rather dark and twisted approach – one suspects Mr Dahl might well have approved – but one which didn’t always seem to connect with the youngsters in the audience at this final preview before press night. The first half in particular saw mostly fitful adult laughter in a tale that is rather stark in its cruelty and political leanings.
This comes of course from the source material but also in the additions that Walsh has made, adding in a whole narrative strand to the world of the vile Mr and Mrs Twit – reimagined here as Home Country twits taken to the extreme – and the monkeys they keep prisoner in their garden, determined to train them to stand on their heads to create a circus act. Yorkshire Terrier Man, Tattooed Fortune Teller Lady and The Handsome Waltzer Boy also turn up in Great Missenden, hoping to locate their lost fairground but also soon find themselves prisoner to the emotionally manipulative married couple.
And in Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins’ expert hands, they’re a deviously delightful pairing too, equally at home in the silly slapstick of the endless pranks they play on each other as in the sly suffering they inflict on their captives. Watkins’ skippy walk to the telephone and Dolan’s approximation of the Queen’s Speech are both huge fun and the psychological games they employ involve such horrors as Slade, St Winifred’s School Choir and morris dancing. They are just marvellous in their malevolent monstrosity.
The monkey prisoners – who are a Welsh family of four, naturally – are far more subtle though, hauntingly poignant at times as psychologically damaged victims for whom escape barely seems an option. Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins and Amieé-Ffion Edwards give especially powerful physical performances here (Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson’s movement direction is just spot-on), the latter bonding with Dwane Walcott’s waltzer boy unexpectedly but again movingly. It’s hard not to feel a thrill when they finally gain the confidence to exact their joint revenge.
And this is where the real star of the show comes into play – Chloe Lamford’s magnificent set design. A breathtaking hamster-wheel of a home allowing for a moment of pure theatrical exhilaration that forms the plot’s denouement (and how the children responded to this!) as well as perspective-shifting strangeness which works well in the prank-playing opening act. It also opens out effectively to show us the garden that doubles as prison yard and performance space – a part of Little England that you would never want to get stuck in.
Powerfully political, adventurously adapted, challenging for children – this isn’t family theatre as you know it and I kinda like it. In fact I really liked it.