Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

One peach is not enough?

At the Sherman

Sherman Theatre- James and the Giant Peach , Sherman Theatre , November 17, 2001
The Sherman theatre’s festive offering was James and the Giant Peach, and there’s perhaps little doubt to anyone who watched this that it felt more like an ‘event’ than a play. In the foyer there were peach chain decorations (designed by Dee Burke), Jazz music, film shots of New York and even jugglers to keep everyone in high spirits. This carnival atmosphere of bright, innocent fun was reflected inside the auditorium too, where children and adults alike could be entertained and stimulated by the production without having to expend any effort.

But in retrospect, this light-heartedness masks a downside. With no serious emotional tug, the afterthought of the play becomes a mere, passive “that was nice.”

Of course, converting such a well-known and much-loved children’s book into a two hour long show is not an easy task. Effectively one is playing the guessing game with people’s expectations –do you give them a thought-provoking play or (given the season) a pantomime? Should one stick or stray from the original text, and how on earth do you keep the adults entertained? Either way, writer David Wood and director Phil Clark were prepared to give it a go.

In the book, orphan James is servant to his cruel, greedy Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. He has no friend and no fun until one day when a mysterious man gives him a bag of “Marvellous Things.” But James accidentally spills them on the ground. He is sad, but soon from the old barren tree grows a beautiful peach. It grows so big that one day he notices a tunnel in its side and crawls through into the centre of the peach stone. There he meets a group of large insects and makes friends. They decide to have an adventure and rock the peach from side to side until it rolls down the hill (squashing the aunts en route) and topples off the cliff into the sea.

There the adventure begins, in the ocean and sky where they must overcome obstacles and dangers together until they land safely in New York.

The book is packed full of symbolism dealing with hope, growing confidence, self-realisation and risk taking, and as usual, there’s plenty of Dahl’s dark humour and resentment for authority figures.

Wood’s script obeys Dahl’s text, even though he begins at the end: A tour guide shows a group of youngsters around New York, and when they arrive at the peach stone house, out pops James and CO to tell the story. But what is omitted is the aforementioned dark side of Dahl and the symbolism is downplayed to give the script a more simplistic, literal, easy to digest feel.

Ryland Teifi played a polite and somewhat sugary James (as opposed to a naturally intelligent boy repressed by his aunts), while Lucy Rivers was an entertainingly grotesque cockney Aunt Sponge, comically lurching across the stage powdering her nose in time to the music. The entire cast played off each other and their surroundings superbly, but again there wasn’t a hint of anything remotely ‘sinister’ in anyone.

This perhaps is what may have left some people with feelings of unease. With New York being cast as the place of freedom and opportunity one can’t help but be reminded of the September 11th terrorism. It’s true that changing the location last minute would have been distasteful, seemingly avoiding the issue and confusing the children. But then doesn’t completely avoiding the dark aspects of human nature do the same thing? It asks the adult audience to suspend their awareness of real horrific happenings in order to appreciate the story. Not an easy task to do, but a one that would have been slightly easier if there was already some acknowledging hint of peril within the play.

Despite sacrificing some of the meaning for entertainment’s sake, director Phil Clark still chose to pursue the theme of community spirit: ‘we want our young audience to see positive images of artists…it’s about sharing ideas and working together,’ it said in the programme. This was noticeably drawn out through every other aspect of the production: On top of Paula Gardiner’s jazzy rock tunes and melodies that emphasised the rhythms of the dialogue and action, each insect also played an instrument that harmonised with the rest to create imaginative, moody music. The characters worked as a strong friendly team to achieve goals, such as hooking hundreds of seagulls to the peach with silken thread to become airborne, and the audience involvement at the end, (adding an element of pantomime) where James asked everyone to blow upwards into the sky to ensure the peach landed safely destroyed any trace of a fourth wall, making made the audience feel like they too had helped in achieving something.

The lighting was spectacular as Ceri James conjured stormy skies, bubbly underwater scenes, fluffy clouds and peachy interiors and the costumes were rich and sumptuous, as Earthworm had a padded brown outfit that looked soft and moist, while Spider’s was black tight PVC with several impressive legs. Designer Sean Crowley also ensured a fantastic and versatile set: a huge bright peach centre stage that spun around, opened, closed, and even the stage around it had a revolving floor. In contrast to this focal point was the backdrop, a black and white sketch of New York mimicking the style of Quentin Blake. Crowley reproduced imaged from the book so well that it made one feel that you were in the text.
It seemed that every element worked in harmony with the rest to create a visual spectacle that brought the text remarkably to life. Take away just one of those elements and one gets the feeling the show wouldn’t have worked.
It is clear that the main focus of the production was pure entertainment and spectacle whose intention was to encourage children’s interest in the arts/literature.

Clark and Wood’s production stuck to the book enough for the time of year and it’s intention, and ensured there was plenty of impressive visual scenes and catchy songs to hook the adults.
It was packed with fun and talent, but for any other time of year, and for those who haven’t read the book, one would need a little more than this peach to get your teeth into.

Reviewed by: Madeline Parr

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