On the night of Roald Dahl’s centenary celebrations, Gary Raymond reviews Wonderman, Gagglebabble’s stage celebration of the author’s stories for adults.
With the final line of his short story, “Pigs”, Roald Dahl echoes the mocking tone of Voltaire’s great satire, Candide, written as it was in response to Leibniz’s condescending maxim, “this is the best of all possibly worlds”. It is a reference that all but sums up Dahl’s sense of humour – dark, somewhat depressive even, humanistic, intelligent but not over-studious, earthy and irreverent. At the National Museum of Wales exhibition of the life’s works of Quentin Blake, in a non-Dahl-related exhibit, Blake’s distinctive work is seen illustrating Candide. There is something in the work of Voltaire where the great writer and his illustrator crossed streams. Dahl was referencing Volatire as early as 1956, Blake’s book for the Folio Society is from 2011. And it is Voltaire who, perhaps surprisingly, is also tying Dahl to the increasingly sophisticated chaos of Gagglebabble, the Cardiff-based company co-founded by Lucy Rivers and Hannah McPake in 2012. Candide is of course in essence a sequence of absurd and often grim short stories, tied together by the journey of misfortune of the titular hero. Gagglebabble’s uproarious tribute to Dahl takes a similar stand. There are words that hold Dahl, Voltaire and Gagglebabble together in a grip – “macabre”, “dark” – funny. So often with the work of Gagglebabble, you find yourself recoiling, looking away, as you laugh.
Wonderman has all the hallmarks of a Gagglebabble production – a narrative fighting for stage time with a jazz-hands cabaret show. There is an enormous amount of talent packed onto a small stage for a brief time, and it’s sometimes an overwhelming experience to see it all showcased. But here, the matching with Dahl seems a fit recipe.
Four stories of Dahl’s – for adults, which means they are stories that made it into his Tales of the Unexpected television series that first aired in 1979 – recreated here as the delusions of a comatose hospital patient, framed by one of Dahl’s early literary successes, “Beware of the Dog”. A live band take the stage – a staple of Gagglebabble shows – and the actors break into song and pick up instruments as they go about their roles. It is a gaudy spectacle of a show, and Dahl – and no doubt Voltaire – would have mightily approved.
One of the joys of watching a Gagglebabble production is feeling the influences come through the fabric of the show. Wonderman is in essence a nod to the portmanteau horror movies of the late sixties and early seventies, the ones that Hammer Studios dabbled in, but which were most successfully concentrated on by Amicus. Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected are in fact ready made for such treatment – short, impactful, self-contained tales of grimness with a weird twist in the tale. It was not unusual for writers of the weird and macabre to find their work suiting quick fire television plays. Whereas Tales of the Unexpected most closely resembled Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (In the first series of 1979 Dahl even introduced the 20-minute teleplays with a short speech to camera, as did Serling for TZ), Gagglebabble have teamed it with the likes of Amicus’ The House that Dripped Blood or Vault of Horror. All of these productions attracted serious acting talent in their day. The parts played here in Wonderman’s many segments were originally filled by the likes of Susan George, Josè Ferrer, Brian Blessed and Michael Byrne.
And the talent involved in Wonderman is never in doubt. This, in every quarter, seems to be a significant step up from previous shows – Gagglebabble well on its way to fulfilling its early promise. It is perhaps down to the faith shown in them by National Theatre Wales and the Wales Millennium Centre that means somebody of the caliber of Amy Leach can come to the director’s chair, freeing up Rivers and McPake to focus on their strengths. There is all around a feeling that for all the onstage chaos, Wonderman is Gagglebabble stepping into maturity, taking the respect of industry peers and turning it into something tangible.
Much of what should be written at this point has been written before, and by me: in Lucy Rivers Welsh theatre has a major talent; Hannah McPake has developed into a powerful stage presence, capable of sweeping moments of high camp; Daf James should be underestimated at your peril. This is nothing new, even if Wonderman might suggest a stepping up of gears. If Wales had a national theatre awards worthy of the name, these three, and Gagglebabble, would be annual fixtures, dominating nominations for the foreseeable future.
And with Wonderman we can now add another. In Adam Redmore Welsh theatre may be seeing the emergence of a very rare thing indeed: a bona fide leading man. James is athletic, dashingly handsome, and even when breaking-down has an eminent charm about him. It is a shame that when penning the script, Daf James did not give him more to do. The Dahl character, who fulfills the central roles of the embedded stories, has action thrust upon him rather than forces action himself – he is always a passive presence. And yet Redmore manages to keep things swirling around him. There is certainly no problem in imagining this is the dashing Dahl of the post-war years who would go on to become a “bit of a lady’s man” when on secondment to Washington in just a few years, and then marry a Hollywood A-lister in Patricia Neal.
James’ script is a feat in itself. Taken almost wholesale from Dahl’s own words, it is a largely successful exercise in fitting a large idea into a small space. If there are downsides to the show – and it is far from perfect despite being hugely enjoyable – it is in the suspicion the material when deployed into the concept is diluted by over-ambition. Wonderman was always conceived with one eye on the Edinburgh Fringe, and the easiest way to secure a booking up there is to promise a show that comes in under an hour (okay, so it’s filled out with half hour of cabaret, but this is just warm-up and not part of the narrative). The idea that becomes Wonderman could have done with a little more breathing space than that restriction allows. It moves too fast at times, particularly between “dream” segments, and not everything makes sense. This is not helped tonight by below-par sound production on the actor’s voices, and the fact that it was clearly an error to deliver the most complex story of the lot (the bizarre, largely unfathomable “Pigs”) entirely in song.
Indeed, there is a problem with the portmanteau idea in its essence. In the Amicus films the short stories were always hanging on a mysterious hook – five strangers wake in a room not knowing where they are or how they got there, for instance; they share their stories until it is revealed, most likely, they are all dead and they have been unwittingly describing their own deaths. Four or five creepy tales brought together by a solid if ludicrous backbone. With Wonderman, for significant periods, in between the hoopla and heroics, it is not entirely clear what it is the audience is watching. Delirious dream sequences, yes – but to what end? The pay-off is left a little limp as it has had no set-up. Too much is left to the assumption that the audience knows who Dahl is, and that they know his importance. Hardly a fatal assumption when showing in Cardiff on the evening the whole of the UK is celebrating the centenary of his birth, but for a play to work the writer needs to pull context into the script, not leave it out there in the laps of the forever-unknowable public.
For some of us, Gagglebabble were the most exciting prospect in Welsh theatre from about 15 minutes into A Bloody Ballad (2012). Perhaps, with such a formidable array of disparate talent, Gagglebabble will forever only produce the “best of all possible” shows; but I suspect somewhere down the line is a subject that will, in the hands of Rivers and McPake, give us a show that is even better than what we thought possible.
(photo credits: Kirsten McTernan)
Information on the production and performance dates can be found here.
This performance was held at Cardiff’s Tramshed Theatre on September 13th 2016.