A favourite book of mine since adolescence (and also a cult TV programme in the late 70s / early 80s), this collection of short, sharp, shocking stories with delicious final twists is Dahl at his best; experiments in the imagination and a microcosmic analysis of the peaks and troughs of human behaviour, where revenge is a dish best served dead. And it’s absolutely not for kids.
I went into the theatre with high expectations, despite having daftly read a couple of lukewarm reviews beforehand. Performed at the Lyric in Hammersmith – a modern exterior with a faithful recreation of a traditional West End stage inside – the production itself was impressive and suitably sinister, with revolving stages, gauze curtains, and an omnipresent clock face that circled the hour of midnight.
As for the five stories performed stories, they weren’t necessarily the ones I would’ve chosen from the anthology (I’m a fan of the stranded-at-sea horror of Dip in the Pool, the graphic interpretation of body art in Skin, and the consumable murder weapon in Lamb to the Slaughter) but still, they were corkers. Unlike the book, each tale was neatly woven together by a storytelling stranger, whose unlikely presence in a train carriage served to disrupt and horrify the journeys of the surrounding commuters – more on that later.
First up was The Landlady, a sick little story about a batty old taxidermist with a penchant for teenage boys. You had to laugh and grimace when she pulled out her rubber gloves at the end. Secondly, there was the stupid adulteress in Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat, which again, had moments of hilarity, particularly when her beloved mink coat is replaced by a mangy fox, and the real thing is paraded by her husband’s lover. A jolly nice little lesson in adultery comeuppance, and a tale I particularly enjoyed.
Then there was Man from the South, which travels beyond middle England (a passing palm tree brings a sense of the exotic), and throws the action into a Jamaican hotel room, where a compulsive ‘Southern’ gambler wagers with a dumb American that he can’t get his lighter to spark ten times in a row. The terms of the bet? A Cadillac if he wins, a baby finger if he loses. The sadistically poised carving knife had me feeling genuinely scared and burying my face into my boyfriend’s shoulder. But unexpectedly, it’s the Southerner’s wife and her hooked hand who really steals the show.
A sci-fi tale followed in William and Mary, which struck me as a peculiar story to adapt for the stage due to its bizarre premise. Another production triumph here, with William’s brain and ‘consciousness’ cleverly represented by a steaming tank and enlarged camera shot of his singular dilating eyeball. The fruit-peeling mad surgeon and Mary’s vengeful smoking were both rather graphic and disturbing elements that left me squirming in my seat.
Then it was back to institutionalised England, where Galloping Foxley made up the final tale of a quivering wreck of a boy at boarding school, bullied sadistically by an older prefect. The tale itself is an echo of Dahl’s own horrific school experiences, and one that perhaps resonates better written down than on stage. Indeed, a new stage ending to Galloping Foxley, that neatly tied together the commuters’ journeys, and how they had all ‘changed’ from their experience with the stranger’s tall tales, was slightly weak and far too tidy for my liking. Still, the ‘galloping’ run-up of a vicious assault was gleeful, sickening, and the perfect ending to a brilliantly macabre collection of darkly comic short stories.