A review of George’s Marvellous MedicineBy A. F. Harrold
February 20, 2010
For this visit to Reading the preeminent Birmingham Stage Company have brought to life one of Roald Dahl’s many madcap, anarchic revenge fantasies, one that readers of a certain age will forever have ingrained in their memories by Rik Mayall’s distinctive Jackanory reading.
When examined, even cursorily, the story of George’s Marvellous Medicine is particularly thin gruel (Grandma’s rotten, George makes her a new medicine, she grows, he attempts to make another batch of new medicine and she shrinks so much she vanishes and they live happily ever after), but it stretches out to fill two halves of a show quite satisfactorily thanks to the energy the company put into it.
Regular Birmingham Stage Company players Alison Fitzjohn and Tom Woodman play George’s mum and dad with the business of farmers, the caring joy of parents and the dread of a put-upon daughter and son-in-law.
The hideous, foul-tempered, bossy, ungenerous and cranky grandmother is played with impressive feeling and fearsome frail ferocity by Erika Poole, and George is well-managed and cheekily brought to life by Clark Devlin.
Only-child George, stuck at home on his parents’ farm at half-term, quickly befriends the audience and explains what’s going on. Left alone to look after the old battleaxe who’s come to stay he hatches an evil plan and walks us around the house emptying every pot, bottle and box into his great saucepan, asking the audience whether he ought to and receiving resounding encouragement – in this way he includes us all in his deeds and absolves himself of a little guilt in the ‘I was only following orders’ manner.
Eventually grandma takes a spoonful of her new medicine and shoots up through the ceiling and ends up with her top half poking out of the farmhouse roof, while her feet remain on the ground floor in her bedroom. (It does nothing to mend her temper though.)
The second half shows George’s attempts to recreate the formula for his medicine under the watchful eye of his father who, after having fed it to his animals and seen them grow vast, dreams of an empire of potions revolutionising the farming industry. George dashes around the house entreating the audience to remind him when he forgets something, and despite a number of well-brought up and careful-minded children in the audience who kept saying ‘No’ when he went to put something noxious into the pan, he manages to remake a fair attempt and the bubbling brown concoction.
However, when the family feed it to some handy nearby chickens it doesn’t work the same way as the first batch. One normal chicken grows an immensely long and thin neck, another enormous legs like an ostrich, and a third shrinks to the size of a little fluffy chick. It really is these chickens, remembered by anyone who saw this company’s production of Danny Champion of the World, who almost managed to steal the show – darling little wheel along rod puppets who casually cross the stage whenever anyone thinks to take one with them.
Evil-spirited grandma wakes up and sees George with what she assumes to be a cup of tea, but which in fact the latest version of the medicine, and demands he give it to her (without saying please or thank you), which he does and we watch as she shrinks away to nothing in front of our very eyes. Although shocked and upset by this for a few moments, the whole family soon see sense and realise how much better the world is without the incredible shrinking gran and the show ends with smiles all round.
Although the moral of the story is that it’s quite alright to give the wicked a taste of their own medicine, a sentiment somewhat akin to the foolhardy eye-for-an-eye ethos one hears spouted on those dreadful television and radio shows that involve members of the public, it’s told with such verve, such energy of acting and with such catchy music throughout, that one is tempted to believe it might, for a moment, be true.