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The BFG review at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton – ‘big-hearted production’

Richard Booth and Philip Bosworth in the BFG. Photo: Ian Tilton Richard Booth and Philip Bosworth in the BFG. Photo: Ian Tilton

Roald Dahl’s fictional gentle giant famously finds getting his tongue round human words “a twitch-ticking problem.” Director Sarah Esdaile and her production team, however, seem to have no such problem mixing the veggie-eating dream-blower’s “gobblefunk” language with a non-stop series of delightful theatrical moments. The result is a thoroughly entertaining yarn, brimful of compelling drama, dreamlike wonder and fantastical semi-nightmarish situations, as well as Dahl’s lexicon of mangled-up words that help to make David Wood’s stage adaptation such fun for both kids and adults.

This new, skilfully-paced festive season production works so well mainly because Esdaile, who previously won an award for her production of Wood’s adaptation of James and the Giant Peach at the Octagon, manages to convey the story of little orphan Sophie’s adventures in Giant Land in a good-humoured childlike way without ever seeming overtly childish.

It helps, too, that Simon Slater’s almost continuous musical underscoring is more than just narrative background, but sets the dramatic tone and signals mood changes throughout the play, from dark and ominous to cheery and uplifting. The ingenious staging, on a reconfigured split-level Octagon performance space, keeps the action flowing along swiftly between Sophie’s dormitory, the BFG’s netherworld of gobbling goliaths and “whizzpopping” flatulence (providing the funniest sound effect in the show) and, finally, entry into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace.

Integral to the entire production, though, is the superb puppeteering and silhouette shadowplay conceived, designed and convincingly directed by Michael Fowkes to give an illusion of scale and height, including a delightful animated pint-sized Sophie and a trio of large and greedy human-scoffing ogres.

Even so, the cast wielding the puppet strings, big hands and size 90 boots are never once overshadowed by them, with Macy Nyman as the pyjama-clad Sophie easily and confidently bridging the gap between narration, manipulating her miniature alter ego and developing her actual character. Indeed, Nyman is so assured and watchable in this challenging central role that it’s hard to believe that it is her first professional theatre job.

Wearing a bright tangerine-coloured wig and a glowing smile, John Seaward is lovably odd as the transformative BFG bringing kindness as well as snozzcumbers and frobscottles into a resourceful little girl’s imaginary growing-up world, while Sarah Finigan as the haughty Queen gives a nicely sketched version of comic-book royalty.

But this is very much a production with a strong ensemble ethos, including Emma MacLennan playing multiple characters that keep on the right side of caricature. And there’s excellent work from Richard Booth, Philip Bosworth and Roddy Peters as the trio of hungry humongous hulks who learn the hard way that a diet of kindness will always trump devouring people, but only when the world is freed of bone-crunching troggle-humpers.

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A big-hearted and excellently staged production of a children’s classic