Nasty delights in an upside-down world [by James Wenley]
Roald Dahl has a lot to answer for. His childrens stories, among them Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Fantastic Mr Fox are gruesome and subversive tales, in George’s Marvellous Medicine for example, 8 year old George is responsible for the death of his Grandmother (causing her to shrink into nothing). The adults in Dahl’s stories, like Boggis, Bunce and Bean in Mr Fox or Principal Trunchball in Matilda, are a mean and reprehensible lot.
And with these wicked and whimsical stories, Dahl has been a champion for generations of children. His books were a constant presence during my childhood. Never talking down to or underestimating his readership, his works speak to the mind of a child growing up in a confusing world. Adults, as all children know, don’t always know best.
In The Twits, Dahl introduced us to two of his most loathsome characters – Mr and Mrs Twit. Mr Twit eats weeks old food caught in his beard. We’re told Mrs Twit used to be beautiful, but after thinking years of “ugly thoughts”, her face turned ugly too (great message there). The couple are always trying to play tricks on each other – their mutual hatred of each other seemingly the only thing keeping them together. Add to this villainy Mr Twit’s slavery and abuse of a family of monkeys who he plans to train to perform in an upside-down circus, and the Twit’s desire to trap a flock of birds and cook them in a pie, and you have two outright despicable people!
For their final year show, and first Children’s show in a number of year, Auckland Theatre Company brings repulsive life to The Twits in the forms of Te Radar and David Fane (for who else would make an uglier woman?). Their disgusting habits and tricks – including a glass eye cocktail, and serving worms on spaghetti - earn big wicked laughs from the children in attendance. Like big kids themselves, the Twits tricks appeals to a child’s naughty side.
And as it turned out, this production appealed to the naughty side of a lot of adults too…
Directed by Alison Quigan, the cast work from an adaption by UK playwright David Wood, but add their own flavour and irrepressible energy, turning out a show that can best be described as a Pasifika Pantomime Musical Pastiche Circus Cabaret.
The hardest working man in Auckland showbiz, Andrew Grainger, enters first in a mad-capped colourful costume and begins to sing Pure Imagination from the Gene Wilder film version of the Willy Wonka story. A re-written Cheer up Charlie will appear later on too. Along with Grainger’s quite sensitive and wistful treatment of the song, he throws in some graceful twinkle-toed ballet twirls for good measure. He makes the perfect narrator, beaming with enthusiasm as he speaks Dahl’s words, and with good rapport with child and adult alike.
He introduces the play’s conceit – that a travelling circus has arrived to tell the tale of The Twits, and introduces us to the players – the leaping Mugglewump Monkeys (Harry McNaughton, Sarah Graham, Sia Trokenheim and Kip Chapman), the very sexy Rolly Polly Bird direct from the Gold Coast (Anna Jullienne), the Birds (puppets held by a children’s chorus from Balmoral Primary School) and of course, The Twits.
Te Radar is almost unrecognisable under his scraggy beard, but his trademark wit wins through, even dropping some small doses of political humour, making for quite a charming twit. Radar is towered over by David Fane, his Mrs Twit is a domineering Somoan madam. Fane has a cheey gleam in Mrs Twits glass-eye, riffing and wise-cracking through the show with irreverence.
The monkeys, looking like they’ve come by way of Cats, are an appealing foursome, bringing great physical energy and acrobatic flair to the show, with support from acrobatic instructor Beth Kayes. Sarah Graham, the littlest monkey’s energy is boundless, and her diminutive height is milked for all its worth (a chorus line most memorably). Kip Chapman and Sia Trokenheim are impressive with their physical and comic timing, however Harry McNaughton’s Mugglewump Dad is gruff and stitled in comparison.
Anna Julienne’s Roly-Poly Bird, who provides a breath of Gold Coast air in the second half, is a bright Aussie caricature of a fun-loving party girl.
Tracey Collins inventively crazy set and costume design, drawing on Pacific motifs, ties all these characters into their madcap world.
Quigan and her cast throw a whole lot of different gags into the show. To go with the accomplished slapstick physical comedy there’s a Benny Hill sequence. There are the obligatory topical references to Stephen Donald and ‘Nek Minute’ (no Ghost chips however). The music, played on keyboard by Musical Director Jason Te Mete on the balcony, is an eclectic swirl of influences. Famous and contemporary tunes get their lyrics rewritten to go with the story. The Monkey’s dance to Thriller and sing Lloyd Webber’s Memory. Ke$ha’s Tik Tok becomes Mr Twit’s song about eating birdies (“Takeha on my fork”). The Monkeys Want to Break Free from their cage (Queen) and when they threaten to get all Rise of the Planets of the Apes on the Twits, sing, by way of Les Miserable, Do you hear the Primates sing?. While some of these pastiches edge dangerously close to cringe, the cast sell it.
The production also throws in a high quota of innuendo to try and satisfy the adults. Anna Julienne’s Roly-Poly Bird is the worst offender, preening her prime assets, and asking the audience to “show us your pussy”. While some adult-orientated humour is always appreciated, the balance is off, not trusting the Dahl’s inherent humour and cleverness. For Dahl’s story on its own is inventive enough to keep both age groups happy, though the slight novel is padded out further than it need be.
The mixed Audience got right into the show on opening night. There are plenty of calls for interaction between cast and audience, and we rose to the challenge – some adults calling out “Stop! There’s glue on the tree” with even more urgency and concern than the kids. A front row of kids on the side of stage were beaming throughout the show, especially when Mr and Mrs Twit would approach them, wipe their hands on them, or even pick one up and put them in the naughty corner.
By the climax the audience were so thoroughly charmed there was no hesitation when we were all asked – young and old - to all take our shoes off to help with the final trick on Mr and Mrs Twit. While not forgetting that the Twits come to a shockingly nasty end (no rehabilitation to be found here), along the way we’ve taken wicked delight in their scheming. The Twits then, promises a good time for naughty children of all ages.
The Twits is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until 18th December . More information at Q.