“The imagination is a ferocious beast: it needs regular exercise.” So reads our guide – a young lad with his nose in a book – at the end of this evening of Roald Dahl tales. Dahl certainly exercised his, as anyone familiar with his wildly successful children’s stories will know. But Jeremy Dyson’s stage adaptations here remind us that Dahl also wrote for adults, deploying his surreal streak to more sinister effect.
Dyson and director Polly Findlay have staged several of the writer’s Tales of the Unexpected, binding them together to create an evening of sadistic fun and juicy revenge. The result is mixed: some stories translate to the stage better than others and they lack the stealthy fascination of the originals, in which the interplay of the mundane and the horrific casts a chilly spell. But they do reveal Dahl’s uncanny ability to home in on the darker reaches of human ingenuity.
The stories are told by a suave stranger in a 1950s railway carriage to the unease of his companions. One responds in kind, so unsettled by the examples of manipulation in the tales, that he reveals his own experience of bullying at school. The story is based on “Galloping Foxley” from the collection, but here the account of schoolboy cruelty hints at the psychological hinterland of Dahl’s fiction.
Mostly, however, we are here to savour Dahl’s dark humour, taste for the macabre and ability to create peculiar characters. Most memorable is the gambler who makes a gruesome bet with a cocky young American boy about the reliability of his cigarette lighter. Findlay and her cast build up the tension deliciously, with the boy, who stands to lose a finger if his lighter lets him down, wiping his sweaty hand as he coaxes the gadget into action, and his tormentor dragging his heavy cleaver across the table. They bring out too the grisly fascination behind the tale of an oppressive husband, whose brain lives on after him and whose newly liberated wife delights in tormenting her now impotent spouse.
Much less successful is the tale of the kindly landlady who clearly intends to stuff her young guest and keep him as a memento. The outcome is too obvious. An enjoyable evening, but not twisted enough.