This year marks the 100th birthday of one of the most celebrated and successful children’s authors of all time. Roald Dahl’s timeless stories of magic, ambition and kindness speak to people of all ages and teach us that hard work and imagination help us achieve great things. James and the Giant Peach at the Polka Theatre springs straight from the page with fantastic energy, its menagerie of well-loved characters paraded across the stage by a truly endearing and multitalented cast, and breathes new life into a story that was originally written for children two generations ago.
Orphaned as a child when a rampaging rhinoceros eats his parents, James Trotter lives with his cruel and unloving Aunts Spiker and Sponge in a house at the top of a hill. With no nearby children for James to play with, he is forced to cook their meals and do the housework from dawn to dusk. When a mysterious old man gives James a bag of magical crocodile tongues, he begins to hope for a better future. However, he spills the bag’s contents onto the ground and the magic seeps into a nearby peach tree. The peach that grows swells to an enormous size, as do the tiny creatures living inside. With their help, James escapes his aunts and he, the creepy crawlies and the peach embark on a transatlantic journey.
This production of James and the Giant Peach succeeds on so many levels. The story is carried along beautifully by Nathan Guy, as James, whose open and earnest expressions have the children in the audience bouncing enthusiastically in their seats. His characterisation of James is childish without being saccharine or patronising and his wide-eyed sincerity makes all audience participation comfortable and engaging. There is no weak link in this cast, they work together fantastically to segue from scene to scene. The onstage enjoyment is palpable making for a truly spellbound audience.
Each of the performers gives their character a respectful twist on the original and the chemistry onstage is charming and genuine. Particularly effective is Ebony Feare’s Miss Spider who, now Jamaican, injects a certain sauciness into the fiercely British sense of propriety. Lane Paul Stewart’s hilariously stony-faced Earthworm is perfectly offset by Rebecca Yeo and Clive Duncan who, as Miss Ladybird and Centipede respectively, gambol about the stage with delightful ebullience. Jonathan Kemp’s musical Old Grasshopper is the icing on the cake as he plays the violin and the flute to enhance James’ emotional tale. Keith Baker’s costumes are chic and sophisticated but fun and have clearly been crafted with a real appreciation for each invertebrate’s anatomy. The high point of the performance comes when Nathan Guy pleads with the audience to roll an inflatable peach (the size of a small car) from the front row to the back of the auditorium before it plummets off a cliff into the ocean. The children scramble about and parents hide their delight with exasperated glances at one another and a roaring cheer swirls about the theatre when the task is done.
The mark of a good story is the ability to stand the test of time. The story of James and the Giant Peach taps into the imagination of children, summoning ideas of determination, creativity and justice – concepts that will always fascinate us. This production of James and the Giant Peach thoroughly deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible and is a true triumph for children’s theatre.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
James and the Giant Peach is playing at Polka Theatre until 14 August 2016