When he wasn’t writing the books that have captivated children for fifty years, Roald Dahl wrote a collection of gleefully macabre short stories for adults, published in various magazines throughout the fifties and often featuring a gruesome twist ending. Cardiff-based Company Gagglebabble ingeniously reimagine these Tales of the Unexpected as the fever dreams that haunted Dahl (the central character) during a genuine biographical event – his crash landing in the Egyptian desert in 1940 following which he spent several weeks, terrified and temporarily blinded, in a hospital bed in Alexandria.

The best Dahl adaptation since Tim Minchin’s Matilda.

The level of care, discipline and thoughtfulness legible in every moment of this meticulously concocted musical is staggering. The songs prove an inspired vehicle for these expertly crafted tales: musically rich and immensely diverse, with a Sondheim-esque lyrical flair and recurrent motifs throughout. Neither are they let down by the cast of four, who rise to be remarkably adaptable, not only performing in in diverse vocal styles and accents as the tales send us lurching from Brighton to Jamaica to New York but also in accompanying the (exceptionally tight) onstage jazz band with a range of instruments. Performance of the night has to go to company co-founder Hannah McPake, whose performances, both as the sinister, bespectacled Landlady and the benevolent Aunt Glosspan are both fabulous.

The show’s technical elements deserve special mention. The set, simply a hospital bed and two screens, is mined to its fullest potential and various technical tricks, allowing a bandage to disappear and re-appear around Dahl’s head, are impressively carried off. Huge credit must also go to Joshua Carr’s sumptuous lighting design which transports us from the rich, heady atmosphere of Kingston to the harsh lighting of a hospital in a flash.

Most gratifying of all, however, is the depth of understanding and affection for potentially tricky source material. Writers Daf James and Lucy Rivers are obviously Dahl fanatics, yet not so doggedly reverent that they are stifled from creating some new and exuberant. They understand how to play these short stories off against one another, to splice them together create a joyful new entity. While the structure of show such as this could feel rather episodic, the presiding sense is of a whistlestop tour around the brain of a literary genius: the show feels generously capacious rather than incoherent. The best Dahl adaptation since Tim Minchin’s Matilda. Intoxicatingly superb.

Reviews by Joe Spence


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The Blurb

Following their 2013 Edinburgh smash hit The Bloody Ballad, multi award-winning theatre company Gagglebabble are back in an exciting collaboration with National Theatre Wales. Wonderman is a unique gig-theatre take on Roald Dahl's short stories for adults, combining a sizzling hot score of original live music, macabre characters, soaring imaginings and thrilling twists and turns, all injected with a wicked sense of dark humour. A celebration of the wonder of one of Britain's best-loved storytellers for his centenary year. Prepare to expect the unexpected. 'Exciting, unmissable new theatre' ***** (Stage).