Roald Dahl at 100: a scrumdiddlyumptious world of theatre

Published September 13, 2016

By Niall Palmer

Roald Dahl led what you might call an unexpected life; fighter pilot, poet, spy, inventor, and literary genius. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, we took a look at the impact this extraordinary man has had on the wonderful world of theatre.

Childhood

Roald was born on 13 September 1916 in Cardiff to Norwegian immigrants Harald and Sofie. He was sent to board at St Peter’s school, Weston Super Mare, and later to Repton School in Derbyshire. Desperately homesick, Roald would write home regularly to his mother and, as an adult, he revealed the levels of cruelty inflicted upon children by often vicious older boys and tutors. There was little recognition of his writing ability, with one teacher describing him as writing “words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended”.

Early writing

In 1941 Roald dined in Washington with author C. S. Forester. C. S. asked Roald to describe his fighter pilot exploits with a view to using them as propaganda. C. S. was supposed to transcribe the story but had ordered duck and was finding eating and writing rather fiddly… so Roald suggested he write up the story himself. C. S. was so impressed with his writing that the article was published unchanged: Roald Dahl the writer was born.

Roald’s first original story, written in 1942 and published the following year, was Gremlins, the tale of the little creatures responsible for mechanical failures on planes (almost certainly inspiring the 1980s hit film). It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that the first fully-fledged story written specifically for children emerged: James And The Giant Peach.

James And The Giant Peach

James And The Giant Peach (1961) remains a firm favourite with young readers and as recently as August 2016 was seen on the London stage at the Polka Theatre in an adaptation by Olivier Award winner David Wood.

The show’s hero is four-year-old James, who is forced to live with his two cruel relations, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, after his parents are killed by an escaped rhinoceros. James’s luck changes when an old man gives him a packet of magical objects which he drops in his garden, resulting in a growth of a huge magical peach inhabited by an assortment of human-sized insects.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

Food features prominently in Roald’s stories, and in 1964, came a story inspired by his days at boarding school – pupils of Repton School enjoyed a particular treat when Cadbury would send boxes of their new chocolates to the school for testing.

West End audiences finally got to walk up to the famous factory gates in 2013 when Charlie And The Chocolate Factory opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The show is booking until 7 January 2017.

Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox was first published in 1968. This bushy tale of a family of foxes trying to survive alongside three horrid farmers – Boggis, Bunce and Bean made it along to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2007, adapted once again by David Wood who also directed. A new musical version of Fantastic Mr Fox, jointly developed by Curve and Nuffield, will transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith from 25 Jan to 19 Feb 2017.

The Twits

The Twits, published in 1980, are a spiteful couple of retired circus trainers who play a series of increasingly horrid tricks on one another whilst trying to form the world’s first upside-down Monkey Circus. The Twits last came to the stage in 2015 in the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, adapted by Enda Walsh and directed by John Tiffany.

A rather more adult version, Dinner At The Twits is now offered up by Les Enfants Terribles theatre company at The Vaults. Definitely not one for nosey, nasty little children!

The Witches

The Witches reached the page in 1983 and later flew on to the Wyndham’s stage in 2005 with a Birmingham Rep production starring Ruby Wax. The tale of an orphan and his wise old Grandmother trying to save England’s children from a witch’s plot to turn them all into mice is one of Roald’s most Norwegian-influenced tales.

Matilda

Matilda was first published in 1988, later reaching the West End via Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Tim Minchin teamed up with the RSC to create one of the greatest blockbuster musicals of our time. Matilda The Musical opened at the Cambridge Theatre in 2011, winning a record-breaking 7 Olivier Awards. The show features Matilda, a young girl with telekinetic powers who is terrorized by head teacher and former Olympic Hammer Thrower, Miss Trunchbull. But it’s Trunchbull who finally gets her comeuppance…

Whichever Roald Dahl classic you choose – don’t delay. Book today – there’s a scrumdiddlyupmtious world of theatre to explore!