According to David Walliams’ website he is the most successful children’s author to have started writing since the turn of the millennium. Inevitably his titles have been turned into Christmas TV films, audio books and on two occasions musicals. Last year the RSC launched a successful version of The Boy In The Dress and currently Chichester Festival Theatre are streaming The Midnight Gang which premiered in 2018.
Not to get the two shows confused, but Tom, the hero of the latter, is given a nightdress to wear when he is taken into hospital after a cricket injury. This is because the Matron hates children and will do anything to humiliate them. She bullies her charges, calls them names and denies them any little pleasures – all because “she has darkness in her soul”. As it transpires that Tom’s parents have been neglectful of their offspring and the school he goes to is hateful, the parallels with Matilda become screamingly obvious. However, Walliams is more than used to being compared to Roald Dahl so I doubt whether that’s going to bother him much – and I suppose if I’d clocked up sales of 35 million books worldwide I wouldn’t be too bothered either.
Walliams’ novel has been dramatized by Bryony Lavery who, because she does them well, seems to be the go to writer for literary adaptations of children’s books (101 Dalmatians, Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons to name but three). I haven’t read the book but the original seems to have been followed closely with the children joining forces to rebel against the system (more shades of Matilda) by sneaking out of the ward at midnight to enact the gang members’ fantasies – conducting an orchestra, going to the North Pole, flying. They are facilitated by Porter who is, well, a porter at the hospital and effectively a child in adult’s clothing. His abandonment as a child and his unprepossessing appearance have combined to make him a rejected loner skulking in the hospital basement (more than a few shades of Quasimodo here). These fantasy enactments make for some delightful sequences and remind us of how inventive children can be when their imaginations are given free rein. Of course, Matron is on their trail and very nearly succeeds in scuppering their fun and freedom but it’s obvious from the get-go that things will turn out right in the end.
The five youngsters appearing in the musical are great and don’t smack too much of stage kiddery. Cody Molko as Tom, in particular has a great deal to do holding the show together and does so successfully. Most of the adult characters are, as per the book I suspect, all caricatures but there’s no great harm in that. Jennie Dale as the scheming Matron is a hissworthy villain and Lucy Vandi as trolley lady Tootsie brings a rousing energy to her gospel music inspired breakfast delivery. Dickon Gough (who I initially mistook for Walliams himself) plays Porter with a sense of childlike wonder and resigned disappointment over what life has thrown at him. There’s a fine line between sentiment and mawkishness and Gough, mostly, manages to stay on the right side. I wanted to see more of Matthew Cavendish’s Doctor Luppers who is weighed down by NHS bureaucracy but alas after a delightful first scene where Tom is invited to give ‘experience feedback’ after just five minutes of being in the hospital, he all but disappeared. Apparently, the newsagent Raj (Tim Mahendran) is a fixture in most of Walliams’ novels but his inclusion here seemed somewhat unnecessary. I can also readily see why Walliams has been subject to accusations of racism (shades of The Simpsons’ Apu).
There was nothing wrong with the music and it all suited the needs of the show very well; however, I can’t say that any of it has stuck in my memory. The lyrics to the first song appealed in their sly condemnation of bureaucracy but possibly went over the heads of the intended audience. Simon Higlett’s stage design captured the mood and I particularly liked his immersive theatre rendition of the North Pole fantasy fulfilment. Dale Rooks’ direction kept things bubbling along nicely. The video was a little rough in places but the CFT website shows it was taken from a what was supposed to be one-off stream direct to hospitalised children, so on that count alone it can be forgiven.
The Midnight Gang is a pleasant enough show with few pretensions to greatness and with a big debt to Dahl and the success of Matilda around the world. In the end it succeeds in demonstrating that constant trope from children’s fiction that adults are often domineering know alls with sad inner lives who only need freeing from their shackles by the children’s optimism and inventiveness to find their inner kid and start enjoying life. Tom is rewarded by the return of his parents and Porter by a sudden elevation in status and the villains are roundly punished for their crimes. To paraphrase Miss Prism’s famous dictum “The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what (children’s) fiction means”.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
The Midnight Gang is available on CFT’s website until May 29th. Click here
Their (non-Disney) version of Beauty and The Beast starts streaming on May 21st
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