Pure Imagination

On the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth, Tom Wicker speaks to Gagglebabble's Lucy Rivers about bringing his stories for adults to twisted, musical life on stage

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Published 16 Jul 2016

From Matilda to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s children’s novels have proven fertile territory for theatrical adaptation. Perhaps less well known, though, is his fiction for adults – short stories that thrive in the space between the everyday and the uncanny.

Now, for the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, in time for Dahl’s centenary, Cardiff-based theatre company Gagglebabble have adapted several of these stories into Wonderman, a show that mixes ensemble performances with live music.

“When I realised his centenary was coming up, I thought, oh God, his dark humour, those twisted tales, were a perfect match for us,” explains Lucy Rivers, from Gagglebabble. “A lot of his adult stories are quite messy,” she reflects. “They often don’t really have a beginning, a middle or an end.”

As well as writing Wonderman’s music, Rivers conceived the story with Hannah McPake, her Gagglebabble co-founder, and writer Daf James, who contributed the script and lyrics. This creative ensemble has a great track record of working together, their previous collaborations including 2013’s critically acclaimed The Bloody Ballad, which also debuted in Edinburgh.

With Dahl’s semi-autobiographical A Piece of Cake as a narrative frame, Wonderman mixes better known tales like The Landlady, Lamb to the Slaughter and The Man from the South with the likes of Pig. Accompanied by a piano trio, the show unfolds these tales in surreal ways as an RAF pilot—based on Dahl—slips in and out of consciousness.

Rivers has relished making a new play out of Dahl’s stories. She believes that Gagglebabble’s brand of darkly funny, macabre ‘gig theatre’ “really suits his style. He paints these characters quite big, with broad strokes, and a twist,” she says. “So it felt quite easy, and natural, to use music to help exaggerate the world [of the show].”

Where The Bloody Ballad was “a bit rockabilly and very Americana”, Rivers says, Wonderman is eclectic. Audiences can look forward to a burst of musical theatre from the landlady, as well as some Carmen Miranda-style, Latin-Jamaican music for The Man from the South. There’s also a smattering of jazz-swing, and—intriguingly—a gameshow vibe. “I’ve been led by the stories,” Rivers explains.

To this end, she has worked closely with writer and lyricist James, who, Rivers says, has “a big passion for Dahl". In addition to writing for the stage, James has contributed to the Dave channel’s adult storytelling series Crackanory and Sky’s Psychobitches. “So we knew he’d bring that kind of humour,” says Rivers of her regular collaborator. “The League of Gentleman, all that sort of thing – it interests us.”

Wonderman will be playing Topside, Underbelly’s studio theatre on Potterrow. “These decisions usually end up making the style more interesting,” says Rivers, who’s happy for the show to be in a more intimate space. “We’re not a massive commercial musical.” The cast will be singing into mics, adding to what she calls the show’s “cabaret feel” at times.

The ensemble cast will also be playing multiple roles. Dahl himself will be several different characters in his own stories. Having just seven people on stage—including the band—is partly practical: “It’s more fun to see a talented team doing everything,” says Rivers. She and McPake will play instruments as well as act in the show.

Wonderman is a collaboration with National Theatre Wales and Wales Millennium Centre. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” Rivers says. “It was brilliant that, basically, the two biggest companies in Wales were up for supporting the show. To do anything ambitious, or of a certain scale, you need co-producers like that.”

After Edinburgh, Wonderman will be doing a week at the Tramshed in Cardiff as part of Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected, the National Theatre Wales and Wales Millennium Centre-backed, city-wide centenary celebration of one of Wales’s most famous sons.

But that’s all ahead. When we speak, Rivers is about to start rehearsals. How does she feel Wonderman compares with The Bloody Ballad? “That was a bit of an experiment,” she says. “It was the first piece I wrote that really integrated music and story.” After its success, “we all feel braver that people like our voice. We’re flexing our creative muscles more.”

And what accounts for Dahl’s enduring appeal? “He’s still really original, brave and fresh,” enthuses Rivers, who’s re-reading his children’s stories to her son. “He has that amazing ability to really grip you as a storyteller – to still be a page-turner. That quality has stood the test of time.”

Inspired by Dahl 

Unsurprisingly, in the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Wonderman won’t be the only show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe to have been based on—or taken inspiration from—the boundless imagination of the great man’s tales.

UCLU Runaground, the touring arm of UCLU Drama Society, will be presenting their new adaptation of Dahl’s first children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Mixing puppetry, folk music and live performance, this could be a good bet for kids, families and the young at heart.

Meanwhile, contemporary circus troupe Lost in Translation Circus will be re-wowing audiences with The Hogwallops. Inspired by Dahl’s The Twits, this beautifully chaotic show—which re-imagines Dahl’s misfit family with circus and slapstick—is returning after being showered with praise at last year’s Fringe.

And if you have kids aged between five and 12, keep an eye out for the Spotlites theatre company. They have their own venue, Spotlites, and run interactive workshops based on popular children’s authors, series and characters. These change daily, and Dahl will be popping up this year. With Steven Spielberg’s big-screen BFG in cinemas, they're likely to be packed.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Dahl makes his mark over at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Biographer Donald Sturrock has gathered together the correspondence begun by young Roald aged nine, right up until his death. Also, Roald Dahl Funny Prize-winning author Philip Ardagh tries to answer the question: why are these books so damn funny?