Roald Dahl's tale of childer-eating giants arrives in Belfast's Grand Opera House
Whether it’s drinking from a chocolate river or sailing through the sky in a magical peach, the outré terrain of Roald Dahl’s fiction doesn’t easily lend itself to the stage.
And The BFG – one of the author’s most popular children’s stories – finds Dahl in swashbuckling, macabre form with ‘childer-chomping’ monsters, dream-catching beneath the moon, speedy jaunts between London and giant land, and a dimension-bending friendship between the titchy orphan girl Sophie and the eponymous Big Friendly Giant.
Like Alice in Wonderland, Sophie is whisked away from her orphanage bed to a weird ulterior world where scale and logic are superbly warped. She fits like a small bird in the BFG’s ginormous palm, both of them tucked away in a cave in freaky giant territory.
Their friendship blossoms as the BFG, in agrammatical giant-speak, tells of his foul vegetarian diet of snozzcumbers, his favoured tipple of frobscottle (which gives him the worst flatulence) and how his giant neighbours dine on ‘human beans’, juicy little boys and girls in particular. The bloodbottler, bonecruncher, gizzardgulper, fleshlumpeater, meatdripper and the childchewer, however, don’t practice the BFG’s abstinence.
These loopy goings-on would be a cinch for Universal Studios, but present obvious practical challenges for the theatre director. David Wood’s adaptation, directed by Phil Clark, does its best to tackle the difficult dimensions and dream-heavy plot artfully.
Becky John is full of energy in the part of the gobsmacked Sophie, terrified of ending up between a giant’s teeth. But when in dialogue with Anthony Pedley’s kindly and slightly Yorkshire BFG, John is forced to manipulate a puppet of the itsy bitsy Sophie to convey the size difference, a technique which is at times awkward and confusing.
A 12-foot tall wire and paper-mâché BFG is used in the second half of the production, when the pair arrive at Buckingham Palace on a mission to end the childer-chomping ways of the wicked giants. This is the first time the giant's gargantuan size is properly represented. It may look like a giant Thunderbird, and is rather immobile, but it brings the drama of a fee-fi-fo-fum fairytale giant to some kind of life.
The bloodbottler and other monstrous giants are kitted out in hideously effective gargoyle masks and their stomping about the stage while tearing the limbs from rag dolls causes most of the children in the audience to pale and grip their mothers – the desired result.
But at intervals the nasty giants also double as musicians, meaning they have to shriek, howl and plan a cannibal-fest to Sweden to sample the ‘Swede and sour childers’ while also playing their respective instruments. This was no mean feat for the actors on trombone, accordion and clarinet.
That said, the use of music (composed by Paula Gardiner) is an ingenious tactic in keeping children’s short attention spans engaged. The orchestral compositions carry the story during the lapses in dialogue.
Sean Crowley’s set design brings a moony, luminous world to the stage with almost ultraviolet lighting and curlicues of white smoke filling the foreground at the 'witching hour'. The BFG’s quirky occupation as a dream mixer and dream blower is given inventive visual representation with an apothecary’s store of pots and jars of iridescent gloop starred with flashing neon.
And the complicated dénouement involving Queen Elizabeth and a hole twice the size of a football pitch in Regent’s Park, full of childer-sated giants of course, is deftly handled.
This is a careful adaptation of Dahl, which stays faithful to the author’s wordplay and devilishly dark humour. But, as with most adaptations of a cherished piece of literature, it leaves you feeling that sitting down and reading the work itself remains the best way to enjoy its magic.
Particularly with a writer as flambuoyantly and even sadistically outlandish as Dahl, whose work is full of twisted adults and bloodcurdling, acid-trip scenarios, it is only by reading the actual narrative that one can fully experience the horror and titillation of his surreal genius.
This adaptation tries its best to get you there, but the best transport to giant land is your imagination, fired by a hard copy of The BFG. No doubt an antique and underrated concept these days, but more vivid than a high-definition Hollywood blockbuster.