BLOG Jack Pugh

NWR Issue 112

City of the Unexpected

On Saturday 17 September, Cardiff's ‘City of the Unexpected’ brought the pages of Roald Dahl’s books to life through random, bizarre, staged theatre which took place city-wide.

The day began waiting for something to happen by the Prince of Wales pub. In front of us are a number of cranes. The heat of the day is magnified by an expectant crowd. Five minutes in, children begin to grow restless, the crowd thickens, confusion is rife. We are 'Waiting for Godot'. Except Godot is a giant peach (we soon find out), filled with hot air (if you’ll forgive the heavy-handed metaphor). Suddenly it towers over the crowd - a mother reassures her child that it won’t explode, though a cacophony of unexpected sirens seconds later doesn’t help her cause. The peach is paraded down Westgate Street, transformed into a kind of Dahlian Carnaby Street, followed by a band of protesters with chants of ‘Save the Peach!’, ‘Peach and Love!’. Eventually, the peach is hauled up against the walls of the castle, on display for all to see.

After this, though, the day continued in dribs and drabs. In fact, it felt as though the whole day was spent waiting for something which never came. Or when something did happen, you weren’t there to see it. To ‘expect the unexpected’, as we were encouraged, means that when the unexpected does happen (two foxes dance among a pile of books, men in drag chant ‘down with children’) we kind of expected it.

It felt, for those on the ground, like some kind of cruel performance art where the injunction to have fun was met with the crushing reality that the best that could be mustered was perhaps the procession of a peach (I make an exception for a breathtaking performance of ‘Pure Imagination’ in one of the arcades). If, as the director of events Nigel Jamieson said, the day meant Dahl became puppet master of the city, pulling its strings, then he was a particularly mean one.
But perhaps I’m being harsh. During the day, theatre happened, in a certain way - but when it came it was fleeting, and left those watching with more confusion than awe. Missing out on something happening elsewhere. Which is why the day needed to draw people together, to experience some kind of spectacle, to be united by it.

In the evening, then, there is a wedding at City Hall between Miss Ladybird and Mr. Fireman, to which the city was invited. If the day missed some magic, the evening more than made up for it. The marriage happened like a very good school play. I mean this in the best sense - charming, slightly askew, theatre - bizarre yet sincere. On the steps of the museum, a troupe of ballet dancers announced the arrival of the bride to Delibes’ ‘Flower Duet’, which was ridiculous, elegant and fragile all at once. A six-legged bride made her way through the crowd, floating, magical, the crowd filled with awe as, for a second, we suspend disbelief and believe this might be a real wedding.
On the steps of City Hall, the bride and groom said their vows, kissed, and the party began. Fantastic Mr. Fox, with a penchant for sixties love ballads and Hendrix, manned the decks, while James and his giant peach performed aerial acrobatics. City Hall is illuminated with projections of a fairytale chocolate factory which whirred, crunched and delighted. Then, of course, a display of fireworks.

Children curled over shoulders of parents make their way home, tired, confused, yet having seen something magical. So thank you, Dahl, for pulling the strings of the city. If Charlie and the Chocolate Factory taught us anything, it’s that children (myself included) don’t always get what they want. But those who stick around, with a little patience and imagination, get the whole chocolate factory.


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