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George’s Marvellous Medicine

by on 29 March 2018

Open Wide For a Deliciously Wicked Dose

George’s Marvellous Medicine

by Roald Dahl adapted by David Wood

RTK and Curve, Leicester co-production at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 7th April, then on tour until 21st April

Review by Mark Aspen

(See also Evie Schaapveld’s review)

Do not do this at home! This was how I was going to begin this review immediately we got into George’s Marvellous Medicine. Then the show concluded with the cast singing together “Do not do this at home”. I was upstaged. Nevertheless, I am going to reiterate: DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME!

The Easter holiday show at The Rose is so full of that wicked anarchistic deliciousness which children of all ages enjoy, that the fourth wall soon collapses and the audience is revealed to be full of excited children and even more excited sourpuss adults (for there are plenty of home truths here).

The theme of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine is the power of imagination. The eponymous George would prefer to spend his Easter holiday reading; reading fantastical book such as his favourite, about Bully the boy magician and all the wonderful things he can do. His thoughts sail on a sea of his own imagination and he introduces himself by singing about it, “There’s a story in my heart, and I’m its narrator”. You see, George Kranky only has his imagination to keep him company during the school holidays, as he lives away from town in an isolated farmyard.

And what a farmyard it is! A funky towering edifice, mischievously metastable, it could have come from the purple palette of Gerald Scarfe or Heath Robinson. But this is the ingeniously inventive creation of award-winning designer Morgan Large and his large (no pun intended) team that that produce the lighting, video, sound, props, puppets, wardrobe and more in a set that combines a kitchen, milking-shed, bedroom, caravan, and porta-loo, all under a exotically elaborate well-head and wind pump, and all appropriately lit in purple by lighting designer Jack Weir, enhanced by Andrzej Goulding’s video designs and David Gregory’s sound.

The whole Kranky family muck-in (reasonably) contentedly into the daily chores of a working farm, and there is much excitement, ranging from from birthing piglets (“all squelchy”) to capturing a raging bull (not That one), a nice cameo from Matthew Coulton as the scarlet taurine terror. However, for George there is usually time to settle his imagination into a good read, between spells as midwife or matador.

Lisa Howard (Grandma). Photography credit - Manuel Harlan (1)

Then this ramshackle idyll is shattered by the news of the imminent arrival of George’s Grandma. This is not exactly welcome news for anyone in the family, who all know her to be a cantankerous, selfish bully, “with a mouth all puckered up like a dog’s bottom” adds George’s Dad. Panic ensues as a taxi arrives and disgorges Grandma, who makes an impressive entrance like Mad Max on a mobility scooter with dangling dolly-dice, clad in faux-leopard skin and bulging with bling. She does not like the bucolic life, prefers girls to boys, needs tea every two minutes in cups not mugs, medication reminders every five minutes, and flowers make her sneeze. She bosses George and bullies him, using her lazy-tongs like a Kalashnikov and summoning him with a loudspeaker. This is child abuse par excellence, a million miles away from your average kind and cuddly, loving lady that one hopes for as a grandmother. Lisa Howard has a ball as George’s Grandma. It is a part that you cannot overact, and she gives it full welly, full of luscious loathing, savouring the succulent spitefulness of Grandma.

Dad decides that a distant field needs urgent tending, while Mum hurries off to the supermarket, leaving the hapless George to look after Grandma. George’s defence is to retreat into his imagination. Firstly he try to imagine a grandma like all the other children’s, the kind kind of grandma: one who enjoys his presence, even gets up and boogies to his favourite music and, yes, gives him a £20 note to spend on himself! That dream is shattered when she complains that he is bigger than when she last saw him, “growing is a nasty childish habit”. Secondly, to imagine that she is a witch. This is too close to the truth when she wakes up and tells him how she likes eating slimy slugs and brittle beetles, “I never joke”.

Preston Nyman (George). Photography credit - Manuel Harlan (3)

This is too far, and George’s imagination takes its third flight into pharmaceutical fantasy. “If you only knew, Grandma, what George has in store for you?” Well it becomes quite a concoction brewed up in replacement for her own medication, every liquid, powder and paste, garnered for every room and outhouse; sanitary, culinary, toiletry, and veterinary. The result is momentous, a fifty foot Grandma and, on double checking its efficacy in the hen-house, a five foot chicken. Playing a five-foot chicken is mean feat, and it is a (chicken) nugget of part for Chandni Mistry. Her highly animated, very funny and somewhat aggressive fowl no doubt greatly extends the roles she prepared for at drama school, and is definitely no paltry poultry.

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George’s Mum and Dad return. Getting over the shock with remarkable equanimity, Mum turns to practical issues, but when the super-economy sized chicken lays an egg the size of a, well, medicine ball, Dad’s thoughts turn to the commercial possibilities. Catherine Morris’ dynamic depiction of a supercharged Mum (most Mums need to be turbocharged at least), panicky pragmatic or perturbed by turns, is amazing. Justin Wilman is very impressive as Dad, not only accurately portraying the down-to-earth son-of-the-soil struck with vaunting ambition, but wowing with musical virtuosity. Wilman is a celebrated musician and demonstrates the breath of his skills by playing a plethora of different instruments. I counted, clarinet, violin, flute, recorder, guitar, and electric violin: there may be more from his rack of instruments stacked on the apron of the stage. Playing Tasha Taylor-Johnson’s especially composed music creates a wonderfully atmospheric ambience.

As the eponymous George, Preston Nyman whizzes around the stage with engaging eagerness and boyish innocent charm that sweeps the show along. And my, he knows how to work his audience, which is just as well, as in this production the fourth wall vanishes as the audience helps out in the second half, which is the denouement of the plot. While Dad hopes for a knighthood, Nobel prize and canonisation for solving the world’s food shortage, George struggles to remember what he put in the brew.

Here’s where we all help, with every member of the audience from seven to seventy shouting out the ingredients. (Being at the top end of this age range, I was pleased to do this sort of memory test, the type they use to check the marble count of us septuagenarians, and get it right!) Inhibitions fly to the wind and tears run down the cheek in a great family entertainment. Director, Julia Thomas and her company have clearly had great fun putting this show together, and it is epidemically infectious.

Goerge5

Does the second batch work? Well, suffice it to say that, as attested by a mesmerised whistling giant chicken (one has to suspend a bit more than the usual amount of disbelief), it doesn’t. The late Roald Dahl didn’t do gentle endings. The result is even more deliciously disastrous. Go and see for yourself, but if you go to the bar in the interval, give the gin and tonic a miss.

Mark Aspen
March 2018

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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