First published in The Times, Wednesday March 30 2022
Audiences are accustomed to seeing Roald Dahl’s children’s stories on stage. Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were turned into blockbuster musical hits, while David Wood’s faithful adaptations of James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and The Witches are mainstays of the Christmas season.
This new production, from Perth Theatre, in association with Helen Milne and the Roald Dahl Story Company, is based on one of the author’s lesser-known short stories, published in 1977. It is clearly a tale whose time has come. As well as this stage adaptation, written by Rob Drummond, a film version is currently in the works, with Wes Anderson directing and Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.
The core of Dahl’s story turns on Henry Sugar (a debonair but vainglorious gadabout, played with relish by David Rankine), stumbling upon the account of a young man in colonial India, Imhrat Khan (Johndeep More), who claims to be able to see without using his eyes. Undergoing tests at the hands of Dr Jane Cartwright (Rosalind Sydney), who has set her own sights on a Nobel Prize, Khan has revealed some of the techniques he learned at the feet of a spiritual guru. Henry, determined to master Khan’s methods, spots a means of making money at the blackjack table.
Bringing Dahl’s cautionary tale up to date, meanwhile, Drummond adds a framing story, in which a teenage girl named Mary (Eve Buglass) takes inspiration from Henry’s mantra of “nothing is impossible, only very difficult”, as a means of drumming up subscribers for her struggling internet channel.
Drummond and the director Ben Harrison succeed in moving seamlessly between the different portions of this interpolated narrative, the transitions facilitated by Becky Minto’s deceptively simple set of coloured drapes, and quirky music by Scott Twynholm, the sound designer. In a show that mixes drama with compelling visuals, including animation and live magic, the production never feels overstuffed. The feats of illusion, created for the show by Fergus Dunnet, range from mind-reading to close-hand card tricks and levitation. They are always impressive, if incorporated a little awkwardly into the storytelling, though demonstrated with panache by the cast.
Box office: 01738 621031, to Apr 2; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, Apr 7-10; Eden Court, Inverness, Apr 17-19. Horsecross.co.uk