Wizzpoppingly good fun

the BFG and Sophie

The BFG, played by Johua Manning, with Lara Wollington, one of three young actors to play Sophie, surrounded by floating dreams. Pictures: Robert Day

The BFG

Birmingham Rep

****

IMAGINE the noise of a squabbling murmation of starlings, amplify it it a thousand times and you have that solid wall of noise that greets you as you enter a crowded swimming pool in school holidays – or when you walk into Birmingham Rep’s House on an afternoon performance packed with a murmation of schoolchildren.

The fact that The BFG reduced them to attentive silence, apart from appropriate laughs, gasps, oohs and ahhs, and delight at mentions of bodily functions, is a tribute to the hard working cast attempting to bring Roald Dahl’s children’s book to life.

Bodily functions, incidentally, are the banker in the world of children. No matter how well brung up, or well behaved the little darlings are, any mentions of the waste disposal arrangements of the human body will always bring squeals of delight.

In the BDG’s case, the star was whizzpopping, a sign of, should we say, a gastronomically expressive bottom, accentuated by drinking frobscottle, a tipple The Queen and corgiwhere the bubbles go down rather than up, explaining its amazing propensity to cause flatulence.

The Whizzpopping Song, with its suitably rasping sound effects, cue trombones, was a source of universal merriment and delight - particularly when it was beyond the control of teachers. A scene with teachers the butt of a funny dream was also a popular item . . . at least among pupils.

Mike Goodenough as The Queen of England and Mei Mac as Pup-Pup the royal corgi

There was an inherent problem for David Wood in adapting Dahl’s much loved book for the stage in that there is a distinct shortage of 70ft tall actors, or even 7ft tall actors for that matter, to play giants.

But Director Teresa Ludovico and designer Robert Innes Hopkins get around that by imaginative shadow figures projected on a back wall and only seeing the huge hands and enormous feet of the bad giants in the flesh, or polystyrene or whatever, lumbering on at the back or sides of the stage.

As for the BFG, the Big Friendly Giant himself, Joshua Manning is a tall lad, so add built up boots and a tiny Sophie in the shape of Madeleine Haynes on this occasion (Chloe Hawthorn and Lara Wollington share the role) and there is enough illusion there to feed the imagination.

Manning has a difficult role in that the BFG speaks in a mix of giant language, with the likes of snozzcumber, the foul tasting talking cucumber, and fractured English. Not the easiest to learn.

He appears a sinister giant at first but as we find out that he is a kindly sort under a gruff exterior, a giant who doesn’t eat children like all the other giants, but is a vegetarian, and captures bad dreams before they can reach children, and blows good dreams into the minds of sleeping children.

After he captures Sophie we fear the worst – and the worst would have made it a very short book and even shorter show  - we see a growing relationship between the BFG and the little girl, who is an orphan, making her, like the BFG, an outsider in her world.

The first half setting the scene is a little slow, but people who have never read the book need at least a chance to understand what is going on, but the pace picks up in the second half with the wonderfully camp Queen of England, played by Mike Goodenough, and the military caricatures of head of the army, Nyron Levy and head of the air force Danny Chase.

The budget presumable did not stretch to Miss Saigon style helicopters so we had to mcast of BFGake do with the head of the airforce spinning impressively on a rope, as the child snatching and eating giants were captured and flown back to London to be dumped in a deep pit for evermore with only the evil tasting snozzcumbers to eat.

And everyone lived happily ever  after . . . unless you happened to be a child-eating giant condemned to live in a hole in the ground eating repulsive Snozzcumbers, that is

A giant hand trying to escape and reach the light gave a gruesome hint of the malevolent world full of hungry giants hidden beneath the stage and kids do love a bit of gruesome.

With a story it is impossible to translate directly to the stage it needs plenty of theatrical trickery to pull it of and Italian director Ludovico, who was last in Birmingham with the stunning I Was a Rat, to celebrate the Rep’s centenary, has managed it with some style, aided by some dramatic and atmospheric lighting from Peter Mumford.

The remaining cast, Jemma Geanaus, Joey Hickman, TJ Holmes, Natasha Lewis, Mei Mac and Nicholas Prasad, who had half a dozen parts each, gave us giants, servants, a unicorn, a collection of head lice, a royal corgi, dreams and all manner of thoughts and creatures who across the pages of the book.

Music came from Martin Riley, the musical director, and his trio along with four of the cast, playing cello, accordion and trombones.

My grandson, who is not that familiar with the book, being a little young for the story – how do you explain a dream, for example, to someone who has never had one - was entranced by the whole thing but then he does soak up theatre like a sponge. I do wonder though if children, or indeed the adults that take them, will appreciate the stage adaptation fully if they have never read the book.

Comments from children coming out ranged from brilliant and awesome to one group of boys wondering of you could buy something like frobscottle to provide instant flatulence, which, in a way, is a sort of commendation. This is a faithful and imaginative adaptation of Dahl's book which will not upset its legions of readers and might well serve to introduce the BFG to another generation.

The Rep’s age guide is seven upwards, and I suppose the child eating giants, even largely unseen, could be a little frightening for some small minds, but people know their own children and grandchildren. Mine, much younger, never flinched, while I know of one six-year-old who was frightened, so the choice is yours. Just remember no children have been eaten in the production . . . yet. To 21-10-15

Roger Clarke

04-11-14

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