Edinburgh review: Wonderman (Underbelly)

A fiery onstage mash-up of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults performed by the National Theatre of Wales

The cast of Wonderman
The cast of Wonderman
© Kirsten McTernan

Most know him for his kids' fiction, but Roald Dahl – who would have turned 100 years-old this September – is also a celebrated writer of adult fiction. His short stories, which can be seen in collections such as Switch Bitch and Kiss Kiss, are brilliantly dark, fleetingly erotic and superbly weird.

After we've seen a steady stream of stage adaptations of his children's novels, National Theatre of Wales and Gagglebabble have decided it's about time we saw a few of these grown up stories in the theatre too. A play with songs, Wonderman is a fiery mash-up of several of Dahl's yarns, which doesn't quite tap into the delightfully wicked atmosphere that permeates them on the page, but is nevertheless a lot of fun.

There's a sturdy narrative pivot at the heart of the piece – a pilot, wounded after his plane crashed, is in hospital. Oddball characters visit him, arriving through his sick bed delirium. The present morphs into the past and then into his imagination and he becomes the central role in each of the stories. At one point he is whacked on the head by his wife with a massive leg of lamb (Lamb to the Slaughter), at another he is fed cyanide by a sinister landlady (The Landlady). Suddenly he finds himself in Jamaica, where a man bets him that he can't flick his lighter on ten times in a row. If he loses, the man will chop his little finger off (Man From the South).

In between each story we return to the hospital bed, before heading out again into the patient's imagination. The patient is Dahl himself – who actually was wounded after crashing his fighter plane during the second world war. The blow to the head he received and his subsequent weeks of recovery were significant in the forming of the writer he was to become.

The songs, written by Lucy Rivers and Daf James, are punchy and very catchy and are performed by an excellent cast of four, alongside a live band. Amy Leach's direction is simple but very effective – it's a fluid, non-stop journey through the mind of one man and his weird and wonderful stories.

Wonderman runs at the Underbelly at 6.05pm until 28 August.

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