This staging of Roald Dahl’s often macabre short stories for adults has a fitting adapter in Jeremy Dyson, the non-performing member of the League of Gentleman and more latterly the writer of the sinister Funland for the BBC as well as Ghost Stories which premiered at the Lyric before transferring to the West End.
Many of these stories, written in the 1950s before Dahl turned his hand to children’s fiction, were memorably filmed as Tales of the Unexpected. Among the five selected by Dyson are ‘William and Mary’, where a dying man’s brain is preserved in a jar, and ‘The Man from the South’, in which a sinister white-suited foreigner offers a young American a grotesque bet, one in which he gains a brand new Cadillac if he wins but forfeits a small part of his anatomy if he loses.
The latter is probably the most successfully executed with director Polly Findlay really piling on the tension (there’s some superb use of sound, a revelling in the scrape of a blade against wood). This stands in marked contrast to another of the stories in which an adulterous woman attempts to make some money by pawning an expensive mink. This section contains very little in the way of menace and suspense and the pay-off also lacks bite; this has the combined effect of making an 80 minute production feel suddenly sluggish. While its inclusion dose illustrate that not all Dahl’s tales were steeped in the grotesque and that some were about relatively normal betrayals, it seems an odd one to pick and rather sabotages the pacing of the piece.
Dyson makes an attempt to contextualise all this ugliness and cruelty by concluding with ‘Galloping Foxley’, a story based on Dahl’s experiences of the humiliating fagging system at Repton and containing a toilet seat-warming episode that he would also recall in vivid detail in his memoir Boy . During his schooldays, small boys were regularly and vicioulsy beaten for the most minor offences, such as failing to toast bread correctly, and this clearly had a lasting effect on Dahl. This story is dragged from a different place to the others, coloured with memory and pain, something Findlay’s production is able to convey.
These individual tales are linked together in portmanteau fashion by a series of short scenes set on a train in which a voluble camel-coated commuter bombards his fellow travellers with the bizarre stories he’s heard. This device gives the production something of the feel of one of the Amicus anthology films that Dyson’s League collaborator Mark Gattiss recalled with evident affection in his recent BBC History of Horror. These linking scenes are not quite as taut as they might be and though they do serve to tie all these disparate stories together, it feels rather forced at times like roping animals together regardless of species. Naomi Wilkinson’s design does however give the whole production a suitably noir-ish and cohesive feel
The cast take on a number of roles apiece and Selina Griffiths stands out in this capacity, switching nimbly from sinister and bedraggled landlady to frosty 1950s wife. She is gifted with one of the production’s best executed scenes as the widowed Mary, her harsh and domineering husband now just a brain in a jar, a brain and a single staring eye. Mary’s steely smile as she relishes the potential of the situation is one of the most memorable moments in an otherwise slightly underwhelming and disjointed production.