Gary Raymond reviews Unicorn Theatre’s stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and finds a rousing message of hope amidst all the grotesqueness.
One of the many joys for any kid reading Roald Dahl is the author’s penchant for grotesquery, his love of the disgusting. That, along with his detestation of adult authority, is what connects his work so powerfully in the minds of youngsters – the worm-eating and dirt-munching and the parade of unpalatable characters, all of which you can be sure if you were to meet in real life, would stink. For many of Dahl’s most famous works, these elements are part of the fabric of the story, character traits, world elements, they create inhospitable environments for our protagonist or hero to push back against or run away from. But in his book The Twits, disgustingness is the focus. His two main characters, the wholly unwholesome Mr and Mrs Twit, are characters built from the foundations of their unhygienic unpleasantness and fleshed out from there. They are Wayne and Waynetta Slob with the cruelty ramped up, the underclass stupidity removed. They are not ignorant of their repulsiveness, which is where the politically incorrect humour of Harry Enfield’s comedic creations lies; rather they revel in it. Mr and Mrs Twit are, without regret, horrendous individuals.
It is from The Twits that one of Dahl’s most famous passages comes:
If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
If you’re inclined to while away some time scrolling through social media channels, you may have noticed this sentiment being quoted in 2020, and Dahl often being credited correctly for it. It is one of those classic moral epigrams that great children’s literature often throws up, a truism so blatant it feels like ancient philosophy, delivered, as it is, in such simple, eloquent language.
You could argue we are in a war right now with ineloquence, never mind moral ugliness; I doubt Dahl of any age would have lowered himself to the platforms of social media, but had he done so, he would have surely noticed that his words extracted from his stories to create memes stick out on Twitter like the words of God. Dahl was monstrously successful during his own lifetime, but he may find a different form of significance in the Age of the Race to the Bottom if social media continues to mine his work for aphorisms that speak of our time. As I write this, the Republican Party of the United States of America, less than a month away from a general election, is toppling like dominoes with the Covid President Trump has invited into the White House by way of his own hubris. His team now pant and sweat and grasp for breath as they declare their way of life the true path to Truth, Justice, and the American Way. They are Dahlian figures, if ever there were some, rotting and falling apart before our very eyes.
This is the long way of saying it can’t be an accident that Ned Bennett and the Unicorn Theatre have chosen The Twits as the production to spearhead their online existence during the closure of theatres in the UK. The message of the story is that goodness is worth practicing for its own sake, as well as the sake of the wider world. Ugliness shows, and nobody wants to live in an ugly world. It would be tempting simply to transfer Dahl’s deliciously dark musings on this matter to a staged reading, which is what Bennett does in essence, but his production here, a sort of Jackanory for a more hyper-energetic age, astutely identifies the purely theatrical potential of the story. Narratively a two-hander, with both Zubin Varla and Martina Laird having a lot of fun as Mr and Mrs Twit, Bennett shies away from any attempt to replicate Quentin Blake’s memorable illustrations of the dastardly duo. Laird and Varla are actually well-turned out, and both look likely to smell perfectly fine in real life. But they are very good at using the space of the screen to inveigle their ways into our imagination. When Laird reads an early section about why men with beards are particularly disgusting (thank the lord Dahl didn’t live to witness hipsterism), Varla, clean-shaven, twists and contorts his face into the camera in such a way to perfectly convey the sentiment. Bennett has created a show that utilises the often-overlooked magic of the traditional storyteller, and brought the theatre in from that direction. For that reason, as well as others, this version of The Twits is a dark joy.
It’s a bold move, if only for its faith in the traditional powers of live theatre. That is not a place film often goes, or at least not for children, and not nowadays. I have sometimes wondered if the “I” of CGI was evolving to stand for “imagination”. This version of The Twits pushes back against my cynicism, and the cynicism of many, I wouldn’t wonder, who are asking what place theatre can have in a digital future.
The Twits is available to watch for free via The Guardian website.
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Gary Raymond reviews Matilda: The Musical which is an enjoyable and effective West End adaption of the Roald Dahl book.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.