Roald Dahl

To Olivia

08/04/21

Now TV

It’s the early 1960s and ambitious author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is smarting from the lukewarm reception afforded to his recently published children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Undeterred, he’s planning his next opus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We know he’s an author because he constantly talks about the work in progress, dropping little references that relate to what’s coming next and using his three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo, as sounding boards for his new ideas. This is something that, in my experience, real authors never do. Should I ever fall into the habit, please feel free to tell me to shut up.

Dahl lives in darkest Surrey with his wife, acclaimed screen actress, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is herself dissatisfied by the fact that her once eventful career seems to be heading nowhere fast, since she’s reached a certain age – though she has been offered a small part in Martin Ritt’s upcoming movie, a little thing called Hud. (Roald thinks the part is beneath her and advises her not to bother).

But their country idyll is shattered when Olivia contracts measles and, with no vaccine available in the 1960s, promptly dies of encephalitis. This film then is about Dahl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the death of his daughter and his subsequent struggle to maintain both his marriage to Neal and his relationships with his other children. On paper, it promises to be a visceral tearjerker. But somehow, it’s not.

John Hays’ film makes a valiant attempt to cover this difficult subject matter, but seems to shy away from anything too tortuous or distasteful, which means it all feels rather too cosy for its own good. Attempts have been made to ‘plain up’ Hugh Bonneville with a false nose and a balding pate but, even when he’s being unpleasant – something that the real Roald Dahl was allegedly very adept at – he’s still basically Hugh Bonneville, the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. Hawes is perhaps a better fit for Neal, but isn’t given the kind of catharsis her character requires. Even her brief interplay with Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, who certainly looks the part) seems more concerned with pointing out how capable she is at putting the director and lead actor straight about their own project, which just feels downright odd.

To Olivia is curiously underwhelming. There’s an admittedly lovely turn from Isabella Jonsson as Tessa and there’s also the final performance from Geoffrey Palmer as a deeply unpleasant archbishop of Canterbury, ranting about animals not being allowed into the kingdom of heaven, but even that isn’t enough to make this project fly.

It’s like being assaulted with nicely plumped cushions – you don’t really feel any impact.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Wonderman

Wonderman_edinburgh_FOURSHEETS-quartersize_final

21/08/16

Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life, Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales is a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart. Though musicians are onstage throughout the show, it’s somehow not so much a musical as a comic drama with songs. These days, Dahl is best known for his children’s books, but anyone of a certain age will be well aware of his parallel career as the author of comically disturbing stories with a ‘twist in the tale.’

In 1940, young airman Roald Dahl is rushed to hospital after crashing his plane in the Egyptian desert. He has serious facial injuries and is suffering from temporary blindness. Swathed in bandages and pumped full of drugs, he begins to hallucinate – and the hallucinations take the form of several of his most successful and grotesque short stories – including Man From The South, for my money one of the best stories ever written.

This is a brilliant ensemble piece – the script and lyrics by Daf James are witty and entertaining, the music by Lucy Rivers is delightful and the seven-strong cast perform faultlessly in their multiple roles. The one hour and five minutes zips by in a trice and if there’s a single disappointment here, it’s simply that it’s over so soon.

One delightful image – sheets of paper blowing around the stage in the rush of wind from an electric fan, stays with me as I leave the theatre. Wonderman is aptly named. This is a fabulous production.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Witches

THE WITCHESCurve Theatre Leicester

21/03/16

The Lowry, Salford Quays

Looking around at the eager audience for tonight’s show, it’s evident that this isn’t really aimed at our demographic. There’s a lot of very young children in the seats and they seem to be having a whale of a time. As well they might, because this is Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a co-production between Leicester Curve and Rose Theatre, Kingston. It all begins with a jolly song, performed by the seven-strong cast, but within a few minutes, Boy (Fox Jackson-Keen, looking disturbingly like a young David Walliams) has been orphaned and gone to live with Grandma (Karen Mann) in Norway, where she tells him all about real-life witches and how to identify them.

But the educational authorities insist that Boy must return to England to continue his studies, so he and Grandma decamp to the UK and shortly afterwards, go on holiday to a hotel in Bournmouth. It is here that a convention of witches meets every year to discuss business, overseen by the Grand High Witch (a sneeringly malevolent Sarah Ingram) who has engineered a plan to turn all children in the vicinity into mice.

This is a sprightly production, that plays Dahl’s witches more for laughs than for menace. Just about everybody on stage has a go on some kind of musical instrument (Jackson-Keen even throws in a few somersaults) and the cast have quite a bit to do to flesh out a whole range of colourful characters. But there are certain elements here that don’t quite gel. As any self-respecting  Dahl fan will tell you, witches are bald and hide the fact by donning elaborate wigs – so it is somewhat confusing when the clearly hirsute witches are ordered to remove their wigs… and actually put some elaborate ones on – furthermore, the play’s big climax simply needs more bodies to get across the idea that all the witches are transforming, not just their leader. (Maybe the filmed sequences used elsewhere might have been utilised to flesh out this important scene?) Having said that, there was a rather splendid ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ moment where one character sank into a tureen of soup and Bruno (Kieran Urquhart) raised the night’s biggest laughs by denying that he had turned into a mouse, despite having ears, whiskers and a long tail. ‘You are a mouse!’ screamed one little girl, delightedly. And she was clearly right on that score.

One for the youngsters then, but perhaps lacking the nuanced layers that would have kept the parents a tad more engaged. Dahl is still one of the country’s most treasured authors (mostly because he delights in putting his young protagonists through absolute hell) and he was never one to shy away from uncomfortable scenes. A pity then, that an unremittingly  Dahl moment towards the play’s conclusion is somewhat neutered by a cheesy song straight afterwards, but hey, the kids aren’t complaining and this one is definitely for them.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney