Roald Dhal is one of Britain’s best loved children’s authors, known for his fantastical and often darkly funny novels, usually featuring the triumph of a fantastic child over some truly horrendous adults. One much loved story is James and the Giant Peach, which is currently showing as a musical at the King’s Theatre.
The story follows James Henry Trotter and, as is a common feature of children’s theatre, starts at the end. James and his five insect friends are living in New York, happy as can be and ready to tell the story of how they got there. Showing an audience of children where the tale is going to finish is a great way to make the story clearer for them, and works well for James and the Giant Peach. When it goes back to the beginning we discover James’ parents were killed by a Rhinoceros when he was very young, in classic macabre Dahl style. The musical used shadow puppetry to depict the rhino consuming James’ parents, which is really beautifully done and it is a shame there isn’t more puppetry used in the performance. After being orphaned he is forced to live with his two horrendous aunts, Spiker and Sponge, one very thin the other very fat. The evil pair offered a perfect opportunity for pantomime-like humour that the production took full advantage of. Spiker is played by a man and their contrasting physicalities and costumes were met with much laughter from the children in the audience. In fact much of the musical takes on a pantomime feel and right from the start the audience are encouraged to engage with calls and responses. The evil pair of aunts are definitely one of the funniest elements of the show. Roald Dahl really understood how much joy children get from the misfortune of cruel adults, and this performance managed to capture a lot of that.
One day, in more of Dahl’s own-brand absurdity, a man offers James a bag of magic crocodile tongues to bring him happiness. This seemed strange in the novel but makes even less sense on stage accompanied by a musical number, although it must be said that, at the end of the day, sense is hardly what children look for in theatre. James accidentally drops the bag at the base of a peach tree and the next morning an enormous peach has grown. After the aunts have turned it into a tourist attraction, James goes inside the giant peach and meets the wonderful group of insects who invite him to escape his aunts and go on an adventure with them. They sing what is probably the show’s strongest song about all the possible things they might see. Spider, Earthworm, Centipede, Ladybird and Grasshopper boast eclectic personalities and each have their own skills, Grasshopper plays the violin, Spider spins incredibly strong thread, and so on. The insects are all performed with brilliant energy and the dialogue between them is delightfully funny. They also have fun and colourful costumes, although a lot more could have been done with them. Punters’ outfits at last weekend’s insect themed party at the Edinburgh College of Art could have easily given them a run for their money.
All the visuals have a slightly homemade feel to them, which is likely purposeful but also seems a shame considering the possibilities the story offers. The set has some really nice elements such as the giant inflated peach that took centre stage, but a lot more could have been done to add to the feel of the show. There are a lot of hand operated set pieces, such as a large sheet that when waved acted as the ocean, flying seagulls and the centrepiece which could be turned. These may have worked in a smaller venue but didn’t so much in the grand setting of the King’s theatre.
Overall it is a real kid’s show. Despite being a lot of fun it isn’t as visually elaborate as it could have been and the musical element is quite unmemorable. The humour is perfect for children and any young child, particularly those under ten, would thoroughly enjoy it. However, unlike a lot of brilliant young people’s theatre nowadays, it did not have another level to it. Parents will get to enjoy their child having a good time but there is a lack of the sophistication that would allow adults to enjoy the show much themselves. Despite not quite matching Roald Dahl’s genius, a good job was done of bringing the book to life and the fun characters and ridiculous story will undoubtedly bring a smile.