We loved last year’s Ghost Stories from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, a kind of anthology of short horror tales bound together by an overarching narrative. Alongside more obvious influences there was a hint of Tales of the Unexpected and Roald Dahl’s short stories on which the TV series was based.
So it seems kinda obvious that Dyson would now turn to Dahl for a further adaptation. Called Twisted Tales it’s explicitly a Tales of the Unexpected for the stage, using five Dahl short stories to weave a little portmanteau production using a tight cast of actors playing multiple roles.
Whereas Ghost Stories was rooted firmly in the uncanny and the downright horrifying, Twisted Tales is a little more whimsical. There’s still the underlying menace, cruelty and wicked dark humour that is evident in the better TV episodes of Tales of the Unexpected, but it seems to be playing second fiddle to whimsy here.
There’s a real trick to pulling these ‘with a twist’ vignettes off; before long an audience is looking out for an ironic comeuppance or a great switcheroo. By the time five such climaxes have played out it becomes a little jaded – and perhaps these stories are overfamiliar but they seem somewhat unsatisfying.
Also problematic are some of the tales included here, some of which are perhaps not among the strongest of the Dahl short story canon. A tale about a landlady with a macabre secret is a good way to kick off and another about extending life beyond the death of the body is a classic piece of Dahl retribution.
But Man From the South goes nowhere, despite some of the better scenes in the production, and Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat never really gets going. Galloping Foxley is wisely tweaked to ramp up the originally weak conclusion and serves to weave the other tales together – but whereas Ghost Stories tied its strands together superbly through the narrative and the visuals and theatricality of it all, it’s less successful here.
The audience’s reaction to many of the vignettes is mainly of indulgent laughter, as if they’ve been shown a middling card trick – and it swamps any dramatic tension that these short stories thrive on, particularly in Man From the South with its disturbing bet between two strangers and Galloping Foxley with its public school maniac.
Those behind this production may deprecate the comparison and downplay similarities to Ghost Stories but they feel unavoidable, and Twisted Tales comes off second best.
That speaks more of the successes of the earlier production rather than the weaknesses of Twisted Tales, which has wit and skill and strong performances – and is certainly entertaining. The set design was clever and effective from the first scene – a railway carriage hurtling out of the darkness towards the front of the stage – and George Rainsford was particularly good as Foxley and Nick Fletcher as Mr Palacios too, among a talented and versatile cast.
Ultimately Twisted Tales needed more menace and horror and vicious wit to live up to the best of Dahl’s writing and subsequent adaptations, though it still remained an intriguing and accomplished night at the theatre.
But if it were a cup of cocoa there would barely be the slightest hint of bitter almonds. There was barely a glint in its eye nor a curl at the edge of the lip. We wanted Twisted Tales to be more twisted; not just a twist, but a sting.