As a child, Guy Edmonds loved Roald Dahl’s books with their twisted stories full of irreverent, sometimes grotesque humour.
“They are a challenge to young people. It’s not sugar and lollipops – it’s sugar and lollipops and wolves,” he says with relish.
Edmonds is best known for his role in the ABC’s A Moody Christmas and for playing Timothy Conigrave in the original Australian stage production of Holding the Man, a role he later reprised in London.
Among his many other credits, he also portrayed the young Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson’s play Rupert for Melbourne Theatre Company last year, and when the production toured to Washington in the US. He will feature in Rupert again in the forthcoming Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (November 25 – December 14).
But first, he is giving full vent to his love of Dahl in a one-man stage version of The Witches, adapted from a play by David Wood.
A sell-out hit in Melbourne in June, with interest now from London and New York, The Witches arrives at the SBW Stables Theatre later this month just in time for the school holidays.
Dahl’s witches don’t wear black pointy hats and ride broomsticks. They disguise themselves as ordinary women but they are every bit as evil. Revolted by children, who smell like dog droppings to them, they plan to get turn all of England’s youngsters into mice. A young boy and his grandmother, who accidentally overhear their plot, set out to stop them.
The show is the brainchild of director/choreographer Lucas Jervies and began in 2012 as a project at NIDA where he did the directing course.
“Egil Kipste, the head of the directing course, gets me in from time to time to work with the directing students,” says Edmonds.
“He was doing an audition workshop with them so he said, ‘here’s a real actor, give them an audition piece and work with them’ so it was like a mock audition.
“So I worked with all the directors one of them being Lucas and he gave me the Grand High Witch’s monologue (from Wood’s play) when she enters the ballroom: ‘You may ree-moof your gloves! You may ree-moof your shoes!’
“I did this crazy (read) – Lucas says like an ape crossed with Hitler. I just say a camp Hitler. Lucas says in that moment he actually thought (a one-man version) might be achieved, because he’d toyed with the idea but couldn’t quite visualise it.”
Edmonds plays nine characters including the young boy who narrates the tale, his chain-smoking grandmother, the greedy kid Bruno, a French waiter and the evil Grand High Witch.
Edmonds delineates them without changing costumes, but vocally and physically.
“It’s not a dance piece or physical theatre but there’s a lot of movement in it, more than I would normally do in a play,” he says.
“There are very clear voice shifts between the characters but when it moves at such a rapid-fire pace you need physical signifiers as well. That’s where Lucas was great because he has a dance background as a choreographer and an ex-dancer. He works at Sydney Dance Company now (as rehearsal director). So he was really good to work with. As an actor you consider what your body is doing to a point but, for me, never in the way that I have done with this show.”
As for props, he has a large chest, a colander, a saucepan, a ball of twine, a toothbrush and a paint tin.
“Every object has seven or eight meanings as the play goes,” says Edmonds. “When we started, the chest was full of stuff and in the first week we just threw everything at the wall just to see which would stick and it was a process of elimination. We had a tennis racket and said, ‘OK, well we use the tennis racket for that but is there a way to use the saucepan instead?’ So it was a process of whittling away until we got to these five essential props.
“It’s really just the power of the imagination. Pure storytelling. It’s the kind of show that if the lighting board went down and all we had were the house lights and none of my props showed up I could still do it.”
The show, which runs for a breathless 40 minutes, is recommended for all the family from age six upwards.
“The brief for the show was to make adults feel like children and I would like to think that we’ve succeeded in that,” says Edmonds.
“It’s certainly a show for all ages but a wonderful show to bring young people to. When we did the Malthouse season (in Melbourne) one night we had three generations of a family – there were 10-year old kids, the parents and the grandparents and by the end they all had the same expression on their face.”
Edmonds will be returning to Griffin next year as part of the 2015 Griffin Studio artistic development program.
“My friend and writing partner Matt Zeremes (with whom he co-starred in Holding the Man) are Boomshaka Films, a production company that develops TV and film,” says Edmonds.
“Through our one-year residency at the Griffin Studio we are going to develop a musical set on Christmas Island. It’s a musical comedy – with quite a sting in the tail. It’s called Rock the Boat.”
Edmonds and Zeremes will co-write the book and lyrics. The name of the composer has yet to be announced.
In the meantime, Edmonds is thrilled to be at Griffin performing The Witches again, saying: “It’s totally exhausting but a real joy to do.”
The Witches, SBW Stables Theatre, September 24 – October 5. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 9361 3817
A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 7