Film and theatre directors are increasingly drawn to children’s stories, and many of the most successful and popular stage shows of the moment are adaptations of children’s books, from War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time to Matilda. Now the Royal Court are staging an adaptation of The Twits, with a script by Enda Walsh, author of Once, Disco Pigs, and Ballyturk. Walsh’s characters have a phenomenal verbal and physical energy; his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s supremely anarchic story promises to be an extraordinary theatrical experience. Geraldine Brennan talked to Walsh and Royal Court associate director John Tiffany about bringing The Twits to the stage.
‘We’ve been happily married since 1997,’ boasts Royal Court associate director John Tiffany of his long-running collaboration with writer Enda Walsh. They met during Enda’s successful Edinburgh Festival run of his first play, Disco Pigs, at the Traverse Theatre where John was assistant director.
Their new baby is the Royal Court’s production of The Twits by Roald Dahl, closely behind their genius middle child, the musical Once, which won eight Tony awards in the US. It was Once that led to the Dahl estate’s invitation to adapt the story of this most unhappily married couple for the stage.
But rather than taking the blockbuster musical approach of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, John says, the Royal Court’s Twits will ‘focus on the physical comedy and slapstick potential of the story’ and introduce new characters to highlight and extend the status games in Dahl’s tale.
The malevolent couple, played by Jason Watkins and Monica Dolan, have been imagined as crumbling down-at-heel aristocrats. ‘Those very posh people whose home is their castle, but they’ll have dog dirt in their kitchen,’ says John. ‘They are terrified of being made smaller, as the Twits literally are.’ The hapless monkeys imprisoned in the Twits’ garden have become a feisty close-knit Welsh family. While keeping the monkeys in a cage, Mr and Mrs Twit have built a cage for themselves of their mutual hatred. ‘They are very trapped and scared of the world seeing them as they really are.’
Enda Walsh has created a new strand to the story in which a band of Yorkshire fairground folk arrives in pursuit of their fairground, which Mr and Mrs Twit have stolen. As he says: ‘The Twits is a fantastic study of character, which is why I leapt at the chance to adapt it. I was astounded by the delicious evil of the Twits as a relentless force. The narrative draws us into a world of ridiculous anarchy but it is quite a simple narrative and we needed to be able to spend more time with the situations. I hope that what we’ve now got holds on to the essence of the story and the Twits’ malevolence, but we’ve expanded the community that takes on the Twits. The fairground people have been living under a flyover in Leeds and they are as under the cosh as the monkeys are, but when they unite they are able to pull together and hold each other up. It’s about different groups coming together against the bullies and how revolutions can build to topple dictators. For children dealing with bullies, it shows that you have to be brave and resourceful and gather your allies.’
The new elements in the story mean that Walsh has removed the Roly-Poly Bird, which is on a par with the Ancient Mariner shooting the albatross. But he insists that there’s nothing missing. ‘The Yorkshire characters are doing the job of the Roly-Poly Bird in giving the monkeys the confidence to fight back.’
The theme of listening to and passing on stories from other families and communities is central to the free programme of writing workshops that accompanies the production. ‘We’re encouraging families to share their stories with other families who will retell them in a different way,’ says Enda. ‘You carry your stories with you but can give them away to have a life of their own.’
Meanwhile, the gross and grotesque details of the Twits’ world are invading the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. ‘I don’t think there’s ever been furniture stuck to the ceiling here before,’ says John. ‘I’ve just spent a rehearsal playing with worm spaghetti and eyeballs. I’m loving it.’
Roald Dahl’s The Twits runs April 7 – May 31
Booking opens soon for free writing workshops for families or children aged 8-11, devised by John and Enda but led by Royal Court facilitators.
The Twits, Roald Dahl, Puffin, 978-0-1413-4639-7, £5.99
The Twits (NHB Modern Plays), mischievously adapted by Enda Walsh, Nick Hern Books, 978-1-8484-2474-6, £9.99
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.