Roald Dahl Day Comes to Omagh

Omagh's Strule Arts Centre celebrates the childrens author with a new production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

If you are in or near Omagh’s Strule Arts Centre on Saturday, September 21, you may well meet Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, or one of the Oompa Loopa factory workers featured in Roald Dahl’s world famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Numerous children will dress up as their favourite Dahl characters for a theatre event marking Roald Dahl Day 2013 – no-one will mind that the celebration is taking place a week later than the day officially designated to mark the author’s birthday on September 13.

Dahl was born in Llandaff in Wales in 1916 and died in Oxford on November 23, 1990 aged 74. His children’s stories are compulsory bedtime reading in millions of homes around the world, and their popularity has spawned numerous theatre and film adaptations.

Currently spectacular musical versions of Mathilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are playing at West End theatres in London. But artist, cartoonist, teacher and firm Dahl fan, Helen McFarland, is keen for Dahl's magic to inspire children in Northern Ireland too.

McFarland organised the first Roald Dahl Day in Omagh in 2011, when the chosen book was The Enormous Crocodile. Last year it was Fantastic Mr Fox, and this year she has chosen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

'My children read all of Dahl’s books, and even now my 22-year-old son still loves Fantastic Mr Fox,' says McFarland with a wry smile. 'It never ceases to amaze me that the children who come to our shows know so much about Dahl and his characters.

'They know that he wrote his books in a hut in his garden where the Dahl children played in a gipsy caravan. I’m sure that this year they will tell us that Dahl loved chocolate, that back home in Loompaland in the African jungle, the Oompa Loompas lived in tree houses and, aside from red beasties and bark from the bong bong tree, their favourite food was cocoa.'

In preparation for the Omagh show, McFarland – who reveals that she is related to the Fermanagh-born author Shan Bullock – has written a short script drawn from the book. Her narrator is professional actor Stuart Gibson, who assumes the role of the eccentric but highly creative Mr Willy Wonka, the most renowned candy maker in the world.

Johnny Depp is, of course, a hard act to follow, but then Gibson is a seasoned Dahl actor having starred in a final year production of The BFG at Drumragh Integrated College.

Inspired by Quentin Blake’s original drawings for Dahl’s books, McFarland will be on stage with her paint brush in the days ahead reproducing some of her own brilliant sketches of Willy Wonka, the Oompa Loompas or the giant gum-making machine on large white canvases.

Now we all know that in Dahl’s book, only the five lucky children who found the golden ticket in their Wonka chocolate bar were allowed into Willy Wonka’s fabulous factory. But in Omagh, he will invite all of the children into his wonderful world. They will move along the chocolate river and travel in the electric elevator, albeit in cardboard boxes.

Wonka took a certain malicious pleasure in watching the fate of those little winners who turned out to be spoilt or obnoxious, but their comeuppance only adds to the excitement. Greedy boy Augustus Gloop is swallowed up in a chocolate whirlpool and Veruca Salt is mauled by a band of nut-cracking squirrels.

Despite Mr Wonka’s warnings, Violet Beauregarde is lured by her love of chewing gum into sampling some direct from the gum mixer before its three courses – tomato soup, roast beef and blueberry pie – are fully combined. When she turns into a blueberry she is taken to the juicing room to be squeezed out like a pimple by the Oompa Loompas.

Know-all TV addict Mike Teevee, meanwhile, is shrivelled up in the television room only to emerge form the taffy puller as a tall, thin version of himself – in another hilarious scene from the mischievous king of children's stories.

'Children enjoy stories that are a little bit frightening, for they fuel their imagination,' says Gibson, who studied drama and theatre at Edge Hill University and frequently entertains schoolchildren with Donaghmore’s Bardic Theatre and other groups.

McFarland agrees. 'Dahl knew a thing or two about nastiness, for he attended boarding school where certain teachers meted out cruel punishments and older boys bated the younger ones.

'While he wrote many letters home to his widowed mother (his father died when he was five years old), he never complained about such things. Then, too, it was his Norwegian-born mother who told him many Nordic tales of witches and wicked monsters.'

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, however, goodness triumphs for only impoverished, modest, kind Charlie Bucket, who survives intact. When Willy Wonka gives the factory over to him, life becomes sweet for the luckiest boy in the whole world and his loving family.

At the end of the performance in Omagh, McFarland will invite the children to be photographed with Willie Wonka, and copies of her drawings will be distributed so that each child will receive a colouring in page to take home.

It‘s a measure of Dahl’s genius that when I ask one little boy if he is going to see Willy Wonka in Omagh, he replies pertinently, 'Will the real Willy Wonka be there?'