Adapting Roald Dahl For The Stage

Adapting Roald Dahl For The Stage
Sam Mendes and the creative team for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Roald Dahl’s stories are, for many of us, synonymous with childhood. In the unlikely event that you need reminding, give your favourite Dahl book, (be it years or decades since you first read it) another glance. Tumble once again into his gory imagination, re-experience his transformative story telling, and remember why these were perhaps the books that first awoke your enjoyment of literature. His unlikely protagonists gave us reassurance in our individuality – encouraged us to be different, taught us to be smart, persuaded us that any dream, no matter how remote or ridiculous, might one day be reached. Were these the first books that we read independently, or for pleasure?!

Now, Dahl’s stories have become a popular candidate, amongst artists of all genres, for adaptation – not in an attempt to enhance, but to share and to capitalise. And so, rightly or wrongly, Dahl’s characters are regularly lifted from their printed format, cosy upon the book shelf, in order to face reincarnation. This is unsurprising when you consider Dahl’s inventiveness and that the stories have already been teased from the page by Quentin Blake’s rudimentary pencil sketches, which never dictated, but accompanied the development of the layered narrative. There have been numerous film adaptations (most recently, Tim Burton’s 2005 take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). These have divided opinion, appealing to some and infuriating others, particularly those for whom the books represent the beginnings of a passion for literature – the Dahl purists. And then there are stage adaptations. With branded musicals, such as Ghost, The Bodyguard, Shrek, recently revering success (more so than those with less recognisable titles), it should come as no surprise that Dahl has recently popped up in the west end. Despite high expectations, the success that has followed was almost inevitable.

Matilda The Muiscal in London
Dennis Kelly, Craige Els and Tim Michin

On the whole, adaptors have tended to skirt around the ‘darker’ elements of the stories, fearful of the brutal, gory comeuppances (for which Dahl has faced criticism). But, If you can trust anyone with a priced British story, such as Matilda, let it be the Royal Shakespeare Company. Unlike the 1996 DeVito film, which emphasises Matilda’s telekinetic magical powers, essentially losing sight of the desperation and sadness in the story, The RSC, Tim Minchen and Denis Kelly adaptation of Matilda (free from the commercial demands of Hollywood), stays true to, and takes care the 1988 original. Dahl was named the world’s No.1 Storyteller, and this incarnation does not run scared of the stories he tells; it bathes in them.

And Matilda’s situation is not an enviable one:
No child should grow up believing that they are anything other than brilliant, but this is the reality that the undervalued and extraordinary Matilda is lumbered with. Fortunately though, Matilda learns that she can act upon her inherited misfortune and make trouble for the despicable adults in her life by being, as Minchen so tantalisingly puts it, “a little bit naughty.” In Dahl’s original, friendly, awe-stricken librarian Mrs Phelps, describes to Matilda the all-encompassing power of words: “Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.” And this is the effect of the multitudinous show, luring its audience into the pages, the words, the individual letters.

In its new musical theatre form, the writers have found space for a deep psychological exploration of the characters. Minchen uses each song, orchestrated by Christopher Nightingale, as an opportunity to expand upon the motivations of the characters, be it the brutish Miss Trunchbull, played with tremulous ferocity in drag, or Matilda herself, here made real by five very small, enormously talented girls. The sheer inventiveness of Matilda is evident from the playful opening sequence; the orchestra impersonate a primary school band, making it apparent from the off that the story into which we are about to delve is told through the eyes, not of the adults, but of the children.

Like the book, Matilda does not simply please and entertain, it captivates and inspires. Whilst subversion or ‘naughtiness’ may have cost Minchen and Kelly the Best Musical Award on Broadway at the Tonys 2013, Matilda received a record breaking 7 awards in London at the 2012 Oliviers and continues to be incredibly popular, with critics as well as audiences of all ages.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical
Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman who musicalised the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Arriving shortly after was poor Charlie Bucket, his parents and his four bed-ridden grandparents. Although Dahl despised adults who over-indulge or over-estimate their children, he does just this with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, allowing disadvantaged Charlie to eventually get everything his hungry tummy and heart desired, and this production delivers similarly, offering its captive audience all that they could wish for. But, far from jumping on the Matilda bandwagon (comparisons to Matilda and Charlie are, if anything, unhelpful), Sam Mendes has taken a different approach to adaptation, constructing a lavish spectacle within London’s Drury Lane, home to other family-friendly hits Shrek and Oliver. Allowing the 21st century child to luxuriate in all things delicious and grim, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and David Greig’s deliver a 2013 chocolate factory (designed by Mark Thompson) and contemporary children to explore it. Violet Beauregarde is now a rotsome, gum-chewing child-celebrity and Mike Teavee – a computer-game obsessed break-dancer. Even Charlie is more precocious than you might remember, and the suitably pitched (if forgettable) music perfectly serves this modernisation. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a feast for the eyes, if not for the imagination, bringing the feats of Dahl’s chocolatey creation to life through indulgent theatrics, magic, animation and technological advancements. In fact, it’s worth acquiring a ticket for the Oompa Loompas alone.

Matilda and Charlie are characters who, as kids or as adults, we can in some way relate to; their difficult circumstances are as realistic as any. Their stories, (in their various forms) instil hope and continue to inspire a generation of independent, intelligent, curious dreamers. The scrumdiddlyumptious musicals do justice to the much loved work of the recently departed Dahl, both exceeding the basic prerequisite of the commercial, branded title, but they should still only be considered as entertainment to accompany a reading of the books.

“I feel like I am there on the spot watching it all happen.” “A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs Phelps said. (Matilda, 1988) Nothing is more powerful than a child’s imagination and I, personally, wouldn’t exchange my enjoyment of the books for anything… not even a golden ticket.


Article written by Emily Hardy

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