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Even when a work sets out to be unsettling, it needs to unsettle in a way that draws the audience in rather than putting us off. In this respect, John Tiffany’s production of this adaptation from Roald Dahl’s children’s book may have misfired. The book has been “mischievously adapted” by Enda Walsh. Mischief isn’t necessarily a word to associate with Walsh (who has, in general, taken on the mantle of his compatriot Samuel Beckett in writing a succession of works about existential futility), and it sits self-consciously on his shoulders here.
Dahl’s brief original story mentions only the repulsive Mr and Mrs Twit tormenting each other and the eventual escape of their captive family of caged monkeys. Walsh makes the monkeys almost a family of bards, and gives Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Monkey Daughter a cheeky cross-species love interest. He also adds a clutch of additional characters and a new plot strand. Now the sadistic Twits (played by Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan) engage in psychologically torturing a trio of carnival folk whose fairground they had conned off them years ago.
He has also more or less invented a moral for the tale: the crucial importance of community and co-operation in overcoming greed and selfishness. Yet he keeps caricaturing the message (for instance, with an exhortatory monkey-speech straight to audience that ends with a saccharine rendition of “Morning Has Broken”) and this seems to turn the play — however inadvertently — into a counsel of despair.
Chloe Lamford’s set design is impressively complex, with a painstaking squalor. Under Tiffany’s direction and that of his movement associate Steven Hoggett, the physical business lurches and spasms where it needs to career; it’s particularly unsatisfying to see as talented a comic performer as Watkins so underused. The Royal Court is marketing this as a family show; where Dahl’s genius was in talking to children as equals, this production alternately talks down to them and past them (as evidenced by the press-night youngsters’ response, or lack of it), and largely past the rest of us and its own intentions too.
Photograph: Manuel Harlan