When you’re looking for a kids’ show at the Fringe, there are a few names which ought to be a safe bet and, of these, none more so than Roald Dahl. After all, what child doesn’t love the gruesome ghoulish humour which so often characterises his books?
I say ‘ought’ because there are some exceptions to the rule and, sadly, Danny the Champion of the World is one of these exceptions. It’s just not that interesting and, sadly, that isn’t really the fault of the cast or the production crew; it’s the script which lets them down.
Granted, Danny the Champion of the World is one of Dahl’s less-spectacular stories. The tale of the cheerful and resourceful Danny, living quietly with his poacher dad in their gypsy caravan, is devoid of bloodthirsty giants, malevolent witches or magical little schoolgirls. But the original text still has thrills a-plenty: Danny’s midnight drive to rescue his father, the illicit pheasant hunt and Danny’s wicked schoolmaster, Captain Lancaster.
This production, based on the approved David Wood text, skirted over a lot of these thrilling moments to replace them with heavy-handed messages about cooperation and fair play. The late-night drive, one of the most exciting moments in the book, was relegated to a piece of dialogue-free shadow puppetry and Danny’s first poaching expedition was left out entirely.
As I said, a lot of this lack of interest was not the cast’s fault. They did a good job with the material they have at their fingertips, getting the audience involved, throwing themselves around the stage in character and becoming energetically amusing when given the pheasant puppets to play with. But it all still felt a little by the numbers, as if the company haven’t really brought that many of their own ideas to the table.
What flourishes they have added don’t always feel like they work – the relationship between Danny and his father, an emotional cornerstone of the tale, didn’t come across terribly strongly and the Greek chorus of ensemble players, whilst meant to communicate a bedtime-story vibe, seemed a little unnecessary. After all, if you feel the need to recap ‘the story so far’ four times during an hour-long show, it gives the impression that you’re not terribly confident that you’re holding the audience’s interest.
Danny the Champion of the World is competently done and it tries hard but it’s not what you’d expect of a production based on Roald Dahl. It felt like a show put together to tick National Curriculum boxes, designed to teach kids a lesson rather than simply to be fun. In working to these criteria, it loses sight of the vein of dark humour which makes Dahl’s stories so compelling and thus becomes little more than a way to occupy your children for an hour.