Two horsey eccentrics have kidnapped Amy Winehouse and her mates, and are forcing them to watch re-enactments of their darkest hours, performed by a troupe of dancing monkeys, on the set of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. One of Amy’s friends keeps snogging one of the monkeys. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer is dismembered and eaten. Children are castigated for selfishness and tedium. Torture is sport, and sport is violence. It’s Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It has nothing to do with Roald Dahl’s The Twits.
Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany have created the ultimate Royal Court Christmas show – smart, irreverent to the point of violence, rambling, quixotic – and slammed it into the middle of April. It looks like madness. It may prove to be. But it’s also a bold, political, anarchic work that resists easy consumption and digestion, and as such feels a perfect part (if not an embodiment) of Vicky Featherstone’s work at the Court so far. It tests patience, but it tests convention too.
Walsh bashes through the substance of Dahl’s novel in the first five or six minutes. The Twits is a slim book constructed largely on a number of set piece pranks which a ghastly married couple play on one another. There’s some fleeting business with the Mugwumps, a group of caged monkeys, and a climax involving the Roly-Poly-Bird and the Twits comeuppance, but it’s largely an exercise in episodic cruelty. It’s a wonderful children’s book, filled with gruesome invention and some of Quentin Blake’s most off-the-chain illustrations. Walsh takes only the bare bones. Wormy spaghetti. The eyeball in the pint glass. The insatiable lust for Bird Pie. All of these moments are compressed into a brief dumbshow in the opening moments, before Walsh strides off into the unknown.
The substance of this retelling is the fate of three largely faceless fairground operators, Yorkshire Terrier Man, Handsome Waltzer Boy and Tattooed Fortune-Teller Lady. Some time ago the Twits stole their fairground for no good reason, and now they’ve been invited to retrieve it. But their return is really just a cover for the Twits’ plan to break them down with psychological torture and crush what remains of their free spirits and mutual solidarity.
You can see why they gave this to Walsh. The image of The Twits themselves, trapped together in a windowless house with only their own mutual hatred to keep them ticking, is right up his street. It’s one of Dahl’s bleakest, most perfect images. The Twits literally make up a monad. They are their own past, present and future. They have no outlook, they can’t even look out. Like Pig and Runt of Disco Pigs or the nameless men of Ballyturk, they’ve absorbed the substance of their self-confinement. There’s Ballyturk in our fairground friends too. They’re scarcely real people, they are containers for human hopes, beliefs and longings. They’re only real in relation to their fairground, or to one another. The Twits, on the other hand, impress themselves deeper into the world through their monstrousness.
Walsh has found (or more honestly, added) a seriously political angle to The Twits too. Dahl famously wrote the book to ‘write something against beards’, and allowed his engine of hate to scrunch up a few other pet peeves (slovenly dress, the poor, women) in the process. Here it’s a certain strain of English posh eccentricity which gets sent through the mangle. Mr Twit has a dash of John McCririck about him. Mrs Twit could be that woman from the UKIP documentary who was scared of ‘negroid features’. It’s an overfed and over-pampered, brashly unconcerned with appearances, proudly retrograde kind of eccentricity which Walsh rightly diagnoses as the cover for a repellently reactionary and backward-looking view of the world. In one typically barmy scene Mrs Twit takes on the role of the Queen during her Christmas Day speech, announcing ‘To look back is not always to be nostalgic – people of Great Britain – and its colonies.’ And there’s the rub. Neat, isn’t it?
Walsh’s Twits is secretly full of moments like that. It’s been carefully layered and so many of its squawking flights of fancy come to roost with purpose, humanity or even profundity. But as a play, it’s as matted and heterogeneous, and as unpalatably nourishing as Mr Twit’s beard. It’s excessively talky, particularly in the interminable scenes of monkey chatter. The narrative thread feels needlessly tangled, with set pieces and time shifts emerging from nowhere and motivations becoming hopelessly twisted and oblique. Its Walshishness is constantly pulling against its Dahlishness or its Twitsishness. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to exorcise the plot or characters of the original. They squat in the memory and heckle Walsh’s work.
They can’t raise an objection to the production, however. Chloe Lamford’s set is a sumptuous, ragged, witty horror. With a nod to associate designer Fly Davis’ magnificent work for I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, the Twits’ house is contained in a vast rotating barrel. The set drops backwards to reveal a garden of broken lights and Ferris spindles that hang like enormous rotten torture devices. The reference to Ultz’s work on Jerusalem is delicious, but there’s so much going on here, so much decrepit brilliance that your heart’s racing before the first Mugwump yelps.
Tiffany has a visibly tricky time keeping Walsh’s script on the tracks and the audience’s energy high enough. There are some brilliant moments, including the Twits frenetic dancing interludes to Martin Lowe’s amazing punk theme song (basically someone screaming ‘THE TWITS TWITS TWITS TWITS TWITS TWITS TWITS’) but elsewhere things feel a little too earthbound. It’s a script that’s bursting at the seams with violence and madness, and Tiffany can’t always find a way to translate that. Several set-pieces fall flat, and the visual lunacy that Hamish Pirie found for Teh Internet Is Serious Business is both missing and missed here.
Performances are also something of a mixed bag, with Jason Watkins (who you may know as Gordon Shakespeare from the seminal Nativity! Trilogy) and Monica Dolan ripping across the stage as the titular monsters, full of fox-hunting, Country Life stench and brutality, but neither the monkeys nor the fairground chums are given enough to go on. Aimee-Ffion Edwards plays the Monkey Daughter sweet and smart, and there’s some dry wit from Sam Cox as Yorkshire Terrier Man, but there’s a sense that Walsh just doesn’t really care about them very much, and that sense of absence bleeds onto the stage.
It’s that vacuum that makes it a difficult recommendation for families. There’s enough murder and mayhem to keep kids engaged on that level, but there may just actually not be enough substance, or not enough that floats close enough to the surface for little hands to grab onto. The seats around me were filled with parents trying gamely to fill the gap between their children’s knowledge of the book (no doubt eagerly re-read in anticipation) and the phantasmagoria unfolding before them. ‘The Twits like glue, don’t they?’ one woman offered desperately as her daughter turned bewildered from a set-piece involving a magpie, a shotgun and a bereaved Yorkshire pet owner.
So maybe it’s not for them. So what? They have loads of stuff. They can read the book. I don’t even know where my copy is. This is clever, strange and beautifully painted work that asks for at least as much as it gives. And that’ll do for me.