There’s a bumper crop of marvellous festive family shows around this year, and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s version of James And the Giant Peach is right up there with the very best. Thrilling, moving and funny for adults and children alike, it’s the sort of wonderful adventure into the imagination that only live theatre at its very best can deliver.
It’s based, of course, on one of Roald Dahl’s most popular books, originally published in the early 60s – hence the somewhat psychedelic design of the show – and adapted by David Wood, who has impressive form in successfully adapting a number Dahl’s books. They can work so well on stage, he posits, because “they are innately theatrical, with larger-than-life characters, life and death situations, brilliant baddies, child protagonists we can all, not just children, identify with, joyous irreverent humour, an emotionally satisfying sense of justice, and often an alluring use of magic”. All those ingredients and more are mixed in this memorable production, directed by Max Webster, who, you may recall, also managed to bring Virginia Woolf’s “unstageable” Orlando to such vibrant life with Suranne Jones at Manchester’s Royal Exchange recently.
Adopting the ploy of having the story narrated by young James Henry Trotter (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), the tone of the production is quickly set by making the death of James’s parents, eaten by a rogue rhinoceros in Regent Street, not only both tragic and comic simultaneously but also incredibly inventively staged, essentially with a cardboard box, a couple of saws (don’t try this at home, kids!) and a heaping helping of imagination.
When young James’s life subsequently takes a run for the worse, forced into friendless slavery by his splendidly grotesque aunts Sponge (Beverly Rudd) and Spiker (Jess Murphy), the psychedelic colours drain from the production, reflecting their dull 50s values. But we’re back into the light after a wizard gives James some magical beans, creating a giant peach which turns out to be full of human-sized talking insects, including the sweet Spider (Murphy), loving Ladybird (Rudd), Centipede (Paksie Vernon, brilliantly decked out with a 60s-style fringed jacket representing her legs), the hilariously lugubrious earthworm (Dyfrig Morris) and the brilliantly skittish Grasshopper (Robert Pickavance). This strange but loving new family all decide to fly away in the giant peach, although not before accidentally flattening Sponge and Spiker, just one of the many inventive visual gags that keep the audience utterly enchanted and entertained throughout.
Just the right amount of audience participation helps to keep the show fizzing with energy, my own favourite being the giant beachball version of the peach that the audience had to keep aloft. There are also some lovely grace notes, like the earthworm dreaming that he can see, which had both me and the young woman next to me fighting back tears before cheering at the inevitable happy ending.
Yes, even hardened critics loved this delightful, ingenious show, and my bet is you will too.
By Kevin Bourke
What: James and The Giant Peach
Where: Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
When: until January 24, 2015
More info: www.wyp.org.uk/what%27s-on/2014/james-and-the-giant-peach/