‘What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays’, Roald Dahl announces plaintively at the start of The Twits. Oh Roald. If you thought there was an excess of beard in Thatcherite 1980 when The Twits first hit shelves, Lower Marsh 2k16 would have blown your mind. On the walk from Southwark tube to the Vaults, where the latest Les Enfants Terribles performance is being staged, I see so many hairy-faced men that I start to think this immersive experience has kicked off early.
‘Staged’ is a misleadingly run-of-the-mill phrase for what Les Enfants are doing here, something between dinner and theatre, that the advertising promises is going to be ‘gloriously gruesome’. The Vaults are medium-creepy at the best of times, and creepier than ever this evening, for the underground tunnels are filled with warped trees, sculpted grotesques and ornate horrors. Chief among them Mr and Mrs Twit, played with enormous, vaudevillian flair by Chris Barlow and Lizzy Dive.
Waiting for the Twits’ entrance, we forage for canapés hidden in the Ghastly Garden. We eat Sky Rodent (pigeon) fingers and pork scratchings, pellets from birdhouses and canapés from the compost heap, all of them gross in name alone. I get carried away with all the foraging, and also eat a small, dark nugget I find at the Wormery. It doesn’t look worse than most of the things we’ve eaten here, but it tastes worse, by a long way – small, black and rubbery. A lot like I imagine rubber would be.
But it’s cool, I’m very into this despite almost definitely having just eaten part of the set.
With the start of the sit-down dinner in a, second, larger hall comes a series of dishes that I feel confident are actually meant for us to eat. The dinner spans things which look terrifying but taste standard – like a green parsley sauce for the pie, cold but constantly bubbling on its plinth, and a game pie that’s nice in every way apart from the big bird’s claw reaching out of the crust – to the innocent-looking things with sinister inflections, like the salad with tiny, crispy insects scattered through it.
With Bompass & Parr in charge of the food, it tends to the stuff of science experiments – that neon, bubbling gravy and potatoes served covered with bits of soil. ‘It’s edible soil’, says our server to reassure us, not realising that I’m somebody who eats pieces of the set dressing, and that all soil sounds reasonably edible to me.
The action spins on in front of us – and occasionally over us and across us – with the Twits meandering through the hall, greeting their guests, mocking their guests, sometimes stroking their guests. Chris, next to me, is invited to have his portrait sketched by Mr Twit, which proves after five minutes’ feverish work with a biro to be an elaborate drawing of a penis. There’s chiaroscuro detailing along the shaft. The attention to detail is impressive.
‘But that’s enough of that’, Dahl announces early on in The Twits, heralding the end of the backstory. ‘We can’t go on forever watching these… disgusting people doing disgusting things to each other.’ Yet in this adaptation you’re mostly watching exactly that. Co-adaptors Oliver Lansley (Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles) and recurring Les Enfants collaborator Anthony Spargo have left the plot fairly thin – picking up sometime after the end of the book, at the Twits’ garden party.
There’s not a lot of story arc, there is a lot of disgusting. The narrative’s fairly token, or at least overshadowed by the setting and the food. And despite Dahl’s thoughts on the matter, turns out disgusting people doing disgusting things to each other makes for compelling watching. It’s also starting to feel definitely more like the Dahl you know and sort-of love. And fear. All of this until now – the Garden Party, the neon cocktails, the painted-on smiles of the monkey-butlers – they’ve all been grotesque in a hammed-up panto way, rather than actually horrifying. With the sit-down part of the show there’s a shift towards what I think of as a true-Dahl sort of sinister – a grisly, dark horror that seeps into your dreams when you read his books as a child and takes months of fervent repression to loosen its grip on you. The Witches, I’m looking at you.
Offhand references to the Punishment Pond where bad monkeys get sent, the butlers whispering ‘help me’ as they clear the food – this is the Dahl of your childhood’s sleepless nights. Imagine a pantomime with the heroes taken out, and just the villains and victims left. Between the constant, sinister undercurrent and the panto violence Dinner at the Twits is less along Punchdrunk lines of immersive theatre, more like being dropped into the middle of a lifesize Punch and Judy show. Much like that portrait of Chris, there’s impressive attention to detail, turned to filthy ends. Bad puns with complex set-ups, punchlines punctuated with gore and explosions, and a lot of effort going into making decent food look disgusting. Low plot, high-execution. And yeah. Gloriously gruesome. Sounds about right.
Dinner at the Twits runs until 30th October 2016 at the Vaults Theatre, Leake Street, SE1 7NN. Tickets start at £80 for the standard package, including a three course dinner, a cocktail and wine, or £110 for the VIP package. To book tickets or check availability visit the website or call 0844 2481215. Images courtesy of Rah Petherbridge Photography.