26th October 2022
Going to the dentist is scary enough, but what happens when your dentist isn’t really a dentist at all, but an evil witch who collects children’s teeth and uses them to decorate her lair? Such is the premise of ‘Demon Dentist’, a new spooky play for youngsters based on David Walliams’ novel of the same name. Following in the footsteps of other recent adaptations of Walliams’ material (‘Gangsta Granny’, ‘Awful Auntie’ and ‘Billionaire Boy’ to name just a few), ‘Demon Dentist’ has arrived at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre just in time to give the kids a stagey Halloween treat.
Twelve-year-old Alfie (Sam Varley) lives with his ailing father (James Mitchell), and has successfully avoided going to the dentist for the last six years. After a freak “accident” kills the town dentist, a replacement arrives in the form of the icily charming Miss Root (Emily Harrigan), who gains favour with the local children by giving out special sweets made from her own secret recipe. Soon, children all across town are leaving their teeth under their pillows for the tooth fairy, only to wake up to horrid surprises rather than useful coinage, and Alfie begins to suspect that Miss Root’s interest in teeth goes far behind mere dental hygiene. Alfie hunts to uncover the truth, dealing with a meddling social worker (Misha Malcolm) and his dad’s health problems while trying to save the town’s children from Miss Root’s latex-covered clutches.
Adapter and director Neal Foster keeps his production faithful to Walliams’ story, and the show looks great, with Jackie Trousdale’s cleverly designed set used dynamically, particularly in the underground section in the show’s second act. Where ‘Demon Dentist’ falters is that the “Roald Dahl-esque” tone of Walliams’ writing doesn’t come through on the stage, and a bit more gentle gruesomeness and macabre edge would elevate the show from “good” to “great”. It just feels a little safely-played, which is fine for the youngest of audiences, but feels a tad limp at times. Also the decision to make the show into a semi-musical isn’t entirely successful, with Jak Poore’s compositions feeling forgettable and lyrically uninspired. Dropping the songs and ramping up the excitement with a gentle scare-factor could create something really great, but the tepid musical interludes do little other than stop the flow of the show, despite being well-performed.
Where ‘Demon Dentist’ does deliver is in its visuals and staging, along with a second act which feels much more assured than the first and brings some comedy in, thanks to newsagent Raj (a recurring character in all of Walliams’ novels, entertainingly played here by Zain Abrahams). Funnier writing, plus a well-staged and visually-impressive final stretch, hints at what the overall production could become with a bit of reworking. The cast are also strong, with Varley a likeable lead and rarely off the stage as Alfie, and James Mitchell also impressing as his sickly dad. Abrahams gets most of the comedy as Raj and does a great job, really livening things up, and Misha Malcolm is also great fun as social worker Winnie, who’s Revel-induced flatulence goes down a storm with the youngest audience members. Emily Harrigan tries hard as Miss Root but isn’t quite as sinister as she could be, ultimately camp rather than cruel, but in fairness her book scenes don’t really give her the chance get under the audience’s skin as a true villain should.
‘Demon Dentist’ is far from toothless and is certainly more enjoyable than your annual check-up, but it lacks a little bit of bite to make it truly terrific. Perhaps with a bit more brushing, its teeth will one day sparkle.
‘Demon Dentist’ runs at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 29th October 2022 before continuing on its UK tour.
Performance runtime 1 hour 55 minutes including interval
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