The tagline says “mischievously adapted”; I say hijacked. Working with director John Tiffany for the first time since Tony-winning musical “Once,” Irish playwright Enda Walsh has done a number on Roald Dahl’s novella “The Twits” and turned it into, well, an Enda Walsh play: All awful memories re-enacted on repeat. Theatrically, it’s gleeful — a raucous and raggedy vaudeville show for kids, with a distinct political tang for grown-ups — but it gives up its grip on the original to serve its own ends. The Royal Court production is still just about Dahl, but in trying to be more, it trips itself up.
“The Twits” isn’t about being trapped in the past. It’s about being trapped in the present — in a hateful and hate-filled existence. Mr. and Mrs. Twit live in a windowless house in the middle of nowhere and wage war with one another. She pops her glass eye in his beer; he slips a frog in her bed. She feeds him worms; he toys with her walking stick. Here, that’s dispatched in five minutes of quickfire slapstick — then the Twits team up, turning their torturous attentions onto others.
Crucially, where Dahl’s Twits are brutish and bitter, Walsh makes them posh and superior: crusted members of the landed gentry, dressed head to toe in tweed. Mr. Twit (Jason Watkins) stalks his estate with a shotgun in hand. Mrs. Twit (Monica Dolan) hobbles alongside, smiling a scowl. They’re unkempt — hair like trolls, food-flecked beards, dentistry long since abandoned — because they’re entitled. Why get yourself up when everyone’s beneath you?
At the bottom of their garden, the Twits keep a family of monkeys, the Muggle-Wumps, in a cage, and, as in the book, force them to perform on their heads. This being a Walsh play, though, the monkeys act out a painful past over and over, taunting a group of travelers about the day they lost everything — their pets, their loves, their futures and, crucially, their fairground — at the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Twit.
It’s a convoluted plot. True, Dahl’s is too slim for the stage, but by bulking it up, Walsh also bogs it down. Momentum goes missing as, I suspect, will eight-year-olds, tangled in all the plays within plays.
What survives, however, is a manic variety-show fizz with Watkins and Dolan as its deranged emcees, conducting strained little sing-a-longs and crazed Morris dances. Mrs. Twit gives her semi-treacherous Queen impression. Mr. Twit takes on Santa, serving Rudolph’s head on a plate. They’re as impish as they are imperious and the whole thing becomes a runaway rollick, albeit more like anarchic U.K. comic “The Beano” than Dahl.
While the kids watch wide-eyed, adults are left to chew it all over. What’s twittish about class and privilege? And ought we, like the Muggle-Wumps and the fairground folk, turn things upside-down? It’s a split-level show, but the problem is Walsh’s ever-present form. His insistence on plays within plays is a complete red herring here, complicating the plot no end and clouding the social politics.
Without all this confusion, Tiffany’s production would be a treat. Chloe Lamford’s design — a cacophony of retro wallpaper, bug-eyed birds and knitted monkeys — is glorious; Martin Lowe’s cabaret numbers are both cheeky and punky, and Steven Hoggett’s movement, particularly for those Muggle-Wumps, is brilliantly executed.