AS part of Birmingham Stage Company’s 30th anniversary, director Neal Foster is drilling down into the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth in a third collaboration with prolific children’s author David Walliams.
As with Gangsta Granny and Billionaire Boy, already presented at the Grand Opera House by these regular York visitors, Foster has written the adaptation and lyrics for this fast-moving fangtasy.
In familiar Walliams style, Roald Dahl meets Little Britain for little’uns in his toothy tale of dental detectives Alfie Griffin (Sam Varley) and school classmate Gabz (Georgia Grant-Anderson) – his friend who’s a girl but not his girlfriend, just to be clear – investigating the strange events suddenly besetting children’s bedrooms in their hometown.
As per the norm, children leave their teeth for the tooth fairy, but in Walliams’s warped world, they awake to find strange, unpleasant things under their pillows. Dead mice. A bat’s wing. The rest of the bat is apparently still alive, reduced to flying around in circles. A typical Walliams gag in a show that adds a pinch of Tim Burton and Addams Family gothic humour and pathos too.
Alfie is 12, a lone child, with a dead mother and an ailing dad (James Mitchell), who is reduced to walking on sticks as he struggles with his breathing after years of working down the mine. Pneumoconiosis. Not long to go.
Dark materials for a children’s show, you might think, but it was ever thus in literature. Besides, there is the bond of love, a routine of tea and biscuits after school. Comfort amid the difficulties of what life has thrown at them.
Varley’s Alfie has something of the downbeat yet upwardly aspirant diarist Adrian Mole about him, aged 12, not 13¾, not least in his Me Against The World demeanour, especially in his relationship with social care worker Winnie (Misha Malcolm), with her expectations of chocolate biscuits or any variation of chocolate whenever she visits.
Those demands peak in one of the show’s best scenes, full of comic timing by Varley and Malcolm, as his exasperation meets her insistent enquiries in pursuit of a choc boost.
Where does the demon dentist of the title fit in, you ask? All routes lead to Emily Harrigan’s Miss Root – “Call me Mummy,” she says, arms outstretched – who is one of those white-coated practitioners that puts the mental into dental, like Orin Scrivello in Little Shop Of Horrors.
Alfie has not sat in a dental chair since his traumatic encounter with his last dentist – Mr Erstwhile, a literary gag of a name for a late dentist – six years ago and his mouth is more like a graveyard. Off to the corner of Drill Drive and Plaque Place he is taken, and evil this way lies.
Before you know it, kindly, if eccentric newsagent Raj (Zain Abrahams) has given him his late wife’s false teeth and drunk the stale water himself. Raj makes a case to be the favourite character here, with his bargain offers on everything, his warm heart and eternal optimism. A cornershop caricature, yes, but within the exaggeration rests the ring of truth too.
Sometimes, especially in the first half, Foster’s production feels overstretched, the comedy striving too hard. Alas, Miss Root falls short of a premier league villain, no match for a Miss Trunchbull or Miss Hannigan: a dental disappointment.
Gems are to be found, however: observations of no-one liking the coffee-flavoured Revels; how boys and girls behave towards each other at 12; above all, the scene-stealing cameo by the over-excitable drama teacher (Aaron Patel), flouncing around as he revels in an improvisation session. Why is every school impro play always about the end of the world, ponders Walliams. How true!
Jacqueline Trousdale’s set, comprising brick walls and interiors beneath a brooding urban skyline, moves with ease from house to school to dental surgery and later, in the equivalent of a pantomime transformation scene, to a mine shaft and Miss Root’s bewitching HQ. Jak Poore’s songs are functional rather than memorable.
This driller-thriller adventure ends with self-sacrifice, a thwarted, flattened baddie, an adoption and a wedding, so much melodrama to cram in, like a misfitting set of dentures, but with a big smile as the reward.
David Walliams’s Demon Dentist, Grand Opera House, York, today, 10.30am, 6.30pm; Saturday, 11am, 3pm. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
What’s next from Birmingham Stage Company on tour?
David Walliams’s Awful Auntie, Live On Stage!, coming to a theatre near you in 2024. Watch this space.