Illyria Theatre brought their open air production of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the world to Cardigan Castle, in association with Theatr Mwldan. As part of their 25 th Anniversary season, the Cornwall based Theatre company chose one of Dahl’s lesser known books for the centenary of his birth.
Danny the Champion of the World was first published in 1975 and tells the story of one boy’s relationship with his father, and the threats to that relationship when he discovers his father has a secret passion for poaching. Dahl’s common themes of parental bonds, home and morality are all evident. Along with elements of danger and excitement.
Illyria is one of the foremost theatrical interpreters of Roald Dahl’s work and this is their 5 th title to date. They pride themselves on providing first class open air theatre in the most prestigious and stunning locations.
Set in the scenic grounds of Cardigan Castle, where eccentric owner Barbara Wood once lived in a caravan (and was later forced to sell her home), this production was all the more poignant. The natural setting also offered a wonderful moment when a team of geese flew over the castle grounds above Hazell wood while Danny and his Dad set the pheasant trap.
David wood takes the story we know and love and transforms it for the stage, working alongside director Oliver Gray. Together they bring Dahl’s rich characters to life with the aid of some talented actors. Dahl’s vivid description is presented in the beautifully hand-built set (Jill Wilson). Straight from the pages of his book, it is colourful and eye-catching, complete with a gypsy caravan, filling station and hazel wood. The author’s imagination, inspired by his own surroundings (the gypsy caravan in his garden in Great Missenden and the filling station on the high street) is developed to extend the excitement for the live audience. The six actors work hard to present themselves as the main characters of Danny, his dad, Mr Hazel and the villagers, as well as to fill the minor roles and operate props/musical instruments to set the scene.
Live music begins the story and continues to punctuate throughout the production. Danny and his Dad’s song is adapted for each emotional twist and turn and instruments are used for sound effects.
The cast use hand-operated chickens and pheasants while blowing kazoos for sound effects which adds authenticity to the production.
Danny and his father appear at the centre of the action, in country clothes, with Danny anxiously searching for his father in the night, unaware that he has gone poaching. Dahl’s sense of community is established with local villagers appearing: Charlie Kinch drives his taxi into the filling station, Sergeant Samways rides his bike past, Mrs Clipstone pushes her pram and waves good morning.
Wealthy land owner Mr Hazell (Nick Taylor) is the pantomime villain. A sneering ‘red faced baboon’ of the book immediately met with boos from the crowd. Taylor’s experience entertaining children shows in his interaction with the audience. Stalking the stage and shouting in a pompous voice, dressed in stripy trousers, a white shirt and deer stalker he is the epitome of the ridiculous. This is extended in the hunting party scene, which was never shown in the book. Hazell leads his fellow
countrymen to the scene of the shoot, dressed in their country finery and drunk on champagne, unaware there are no birds left to hunt. As they gaze on, faces contorted with confusion and self-importance, the audience laugh.
Tom Myles (elements of a young Daniel Radcliffe) does exceptionally well to play the 9-year- old Danny. His adult build is soon forgotten, as he presents the hero of the story with a passion and curiosity for life, in a physically demanding performance.
Peter Swales is Danny’s father William. The closest fit to Dahl’s fictional creation, he is the ultimate ‘sparky’ parent, whose excitement for life and love for his son is evident in everything he does. The two actors work closely together to portray the close parental bond that Dahl presents in his book.
Director Gray takes the interesting decision to cast the Doctor as female (Jennifer Shakesby). This may be to balance the gender of an otherwise mostly male cast, (aside from Mrs Clipstone/Rabbets played by Ffion Glyn) but it also adds a new dynamic to the father and son relationship.
Shakesby plays Doctor Spencer as caring and concerned, looking after Danny’s father when he falls and breaks his ankle. She is in on the poaching secret, as are the rest of the villagers. In this production Spencer appears as a potential mother figure, a nurturer and protector of the home when Danny’s father is incapacitated.
The action flows between the scenes, with characters interacting and moving around the set with ease. In a production where many scenes are difficult to stage, Illyria finds a way. From pheasants flying out of a baby’s pram, to Danny pulling his father from a pit on Hazell’s land, each scene is alive with energy and enthusiasm.
The only thing to distract from the wonderful production was the character’s accents, an addition which felt unnecessary. Aside from Sergeant Samways (played by the hilarious David Sayers) whose particular vernacular is described in detail by Dahl.
Wood’s reimagining of Danny allows the story to develop with the threat of Danny and his father losing their home at the hands of the greedy Mr Hazell. This allows for audience interaction, which adds to the success of the evening. Hazell’s appearance at Danny’s school to recruit children to help stir his pheasants up for the shooting leads to a rehearsal with Head game keeper Rabbets (well played by a moustached Ffion Glyn). 300 people abandoned their camping chairs to participate, something which I imagine Dahl would have loved.
In the final scenes between Danny and his father, Wood incorporates the message at the end of each copy of Danny the Champion of the World. Danny’s dad announces ‘not all parents are sparky Danny.’ He then tells Danny he is ‘the champion of the world’ before his son runs and jumps into his arms in a heart-warming end to the show.
Illyria take Roald Dahl’s story and present it in a colourful, emotive and humorous way. Appealing to the Dahl fans of young and old, they manage to go beyond audience expectation and present something new and fresh, without losing the original message of the story. The outdoor element only served to bring the audience as close to the character’s worlds as possible, whilst appreciating the natural beauty of a Wales that Dahl would have loved.