Elise McCann – who won a Helpmann Award for her portrayal of Miss Honey in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical – presents as an intriguing narrator in her new show Dahlesque. She looks resplendent in a bespoke, Daniel Learmont-designed, white strapless jumpsuit, with an intricately embroidered overlay that will later be used as a prop. The messages on it are early evidence of Roald Dahl’s oeuvre; the Dahlesque words and pictures that swish past with McCann’s sashay are a clue to the rich landscape of material from which this show is constructed.
Elise McCann. Photograph © Harvey House Productions, graphic design by Mils Achi and Jeff Van De Zandt
We are immediately drawn in by McCann’s commanding presence as It Must Be Believed to Be Seen (from the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), invites us to suspend our reality. Her passion and control here through the first cabaret staple, the key change, signal we are in for a treat, and as she speaks, “Come on in,” we enter the world of Roald Dahl’s imagination, and his real life.
Here, the “gobblefunking” begins in earnest, and we must concentrate to separate fact from fiction. Written by McCann and Richard Carroll, Dahlesque is fast paced, with plenty of fascinating facts gleaned from personal letters, biographical information and tales of Dahl’s extraordinary life. Intermingled with reality, we find many of the expected fictitious suspects, but the intrigue floats fluidly between the true tales, and the characters, words and imaginings of Dahl’s creations.
Dahlesque is an etymologist’s delight. McCann rattles off words created by Dahl with a charming ease. Two rounds of “Dahl, Shakespeare or President” ask the audience to guess who made up which words. The amusement is ingeniously conceived, but the first is delivered too quickly and much of the brilliance is lost. The second, later in the show, has us entirely invested and this time hits the mark, eliciting plenty of “churgles”.
Musical Director and keyboardist Michael Tyack ably steers a quintet of strings and three percussionists; precision timing, excellent balance and clever orchestration make for an exceptional backing band.
McCann makes admirable use of her stage with tight direction from Sheridan Harbridge and Ben Gerrard. She ventures into the audience, takes us aside to tell us a quiet tale, and cosies up to the piano to belt out a show tune. As Veruca Salt, McCann delights with I Want It Now! Her mix of brattiness versus coquettishness is perfect, but here, as at other times, her powerhouse voice is too amplified, the maximum volume audio, a notch too much.
Arranger and composer of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes about Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs, Stephen Amos, provides an outstandingly congruous musical landscape throughout. A reprise of Pure Imagination (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in the second half turns jazzy with the help of an outstanding walking bass line, while the crowd favourite came in the encore in the form of Miss Honey’s song My House from Matilda the Musical.
The intended audience for Dahlesque is not entirely clear. The well-known music appeals enormously to children (many of whom delightfully mobbed McCann at the post-show CD signing), but the real-life aspects arguably have a cabaret rating.
Nonetheless, drawing material from many sources, Dahlesque is a wonderfully successful show in its own right. Packed with “zozimus” (the stuff dreams are made of), Dahlesque is wildly entertaining in the hands of the captivating McCann.