It’s a funny choice, for the Royal Court, I thought when they announced that they were bringing Roald Dahl’s The Twits to the stage. Not that I have anything against The Twits – far from it. Roald Dahl’s short story collections, dark and nasty with a wry and cruel comedy running through them, include of my favourite stories. And then his children’s literature, equally grim and equally funny, were staples of my childhood.
But still, for the theatre which has been at the forefront of modern British theatre since the 1950s, a theatre fundamental to abolishing censorship on the British stage, the venue which premiered Look Back in Anger, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Saved and Jerusalem – The Twits certainly seemed an odd choice.
Yet in true Royal Court fashion, this wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of a children’s book. In Edna Walsh’s version, the Twits have stolen a fairground, invite the fairground owners to collect it, and proceed to torture them for a year. The adaptation lacks the clarity of Dahl’s narrative voice, and does falter slightly into pantomime territory, yet there is enough anarchy and gleeful disgustingness to keep the show afloat. And Walsh doesn’t shy away from the grotesque; Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan’s Twits are cruel, twisted people. Their tricks are no longer worms in spaghetti; instead, they force a man to kill his dog.
And that’s where the Royal Court tradition rears its head. This adaptation recognises the dark places that Dahl’s characters have come from. It’s not traditional children’s theatre; children will watch it, and children will love it, yet The Twits has an ability to get under the skin of the adults in the audience. Because it commits to a certain theatrical style, because it doesn’t shy away from the grotesque, the cruel and the surreal, it makes perfect sense for it to be at the Royal Court.