Happy insanity in the insect-riddled heart of a giant peach: remarkable theatre

james

“Oh James, we’re not going to eat you,” Samuel Hertz (centre bottom) is James Henry Trotter, surrounded by his new bunch of giant insect friends: (clockwise) Miss Ladybug (Kyra Green), Mr Grasshopper (Shaun Koch), Mr Earthworm (Veronique Mensah), Mr Centipede (Gamelihle Bovana) and Miss Spider (Dolly Louw). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

The utter madness of Roald Dahl’s 1960s runaway success involving a giant peach, a solution to the unhappiness of a small boy at the hands of revolting grown ups and an investment of hope in the future rickety and full of peach flesh though it may be, has been ably translated to stage by Francois Theron.

Not an easy production technically, by any manner of means, the work entails different English-speaking accents – an American component is flush with a British one – conjoined with the illusion of flight  and that of floatation, containment in a vast fruit and the entrapment of insensate seagulls, to name but a few. From an issues-based perspective, it involves the representation and reflection of the violent death of both loved and hated grown ups, and a sense of heroic potency which will touch the young performers – there’s an alternating cast of fours Jameses – for the rest of their lives.

Armed with the need to resolve all of these problems within the small space of the theatre, viewed up close by myriads of enthusiastic audience members, both young and old, and those who know the book and the animated film of the story well, as well as those who don’t, this production is a remarkable achievement.

The adult cast is beautifully selected and honed – each of them, from the dignified and gorgeously dressed violin-playing grasshopper (Shaun Koch), to the boisterous centipede who relishes being known as a pest (Gamelihle Bovana), to the terribly insecure earthworm with a low self esteem and blindness, but a warm heart and a beautiful skin (Veronique Mensah), not to forget the supportive ladybug (Kyra Green) and spider (Dolly Louw) – the larger than life insect component of the work is top class.

The boy in the eponymous role, is however, the one on whom all attention is focused from the proverbial curtain up until the closing credits, and this is a really tough role for a child of 10 or 11. On opening night, Samuel Hertz played James, with a level of aplomb that at times was so delicate yet boisterous and at others, reflected such a mature understanding of what a four year old – or a seven year old – would do, that his performance resonated with that of child performers of the ilk of the Barclay Wright in Alan Bleasedale’s 1990s series Jake’s Progress, who also is obliged to switch accents during the course of the work.

The English accent does, however, at times prove challenging on the ear of the listener and while the intonation is kept uniform, sometimes the language’s clarity is compromised. But mostly, it isn’t, and while elements like the Cloud-Men, the silkworm and the glow worm have been sensibly omitted from the stage version, other elements like Dahl’s delicious poetry about revolting food concoctions that insects eat and other fine things, and his completely lovely representation of James’s two nasty aunts, Sponge (Mensah) and Spiker (Louw) are highlighted and handled with the kind of nimbleness and acuity that the written text exudes, offering young audiences much to treasure in terms of  richness and idiosyncrasy and a sense that anything is possible – including a completely charming and hilarious vignette of the spotting of the peach by a ship at sea.

Much can also be forgiven in this production: one element to the work’s construction makes it feel too quickly brought together – the segueing of the narrative with the changing flows of the set is rough and tends to bruise your focus on the story being told. Curtains make a noise when they’re opened and closed, which force you to remember that this is not a giant peach on a sea filled with sharks, but just the illusion of one, in a small space. While the set comprises drawings strongly and deliciously evocative of those by Quentin Blake which adorn many editions of Dahl’s published work, there is an interface of story and special effects that is too heavily coated with stage smoke: the magic is so powerfully inherent in the cast’s performance that the smoke masks rather than emphasises it, and could credibly be excised from the work.

James’s tale is a totally unapologetic madcap one, the kind of wild fantasy that children of this generation, hampered as they are by social media and technology and the commercial accessibility of everything imaginable, need. It’s a tonic with a blush of frenetic peach-coloured energy that will leave you clamouring for more.

  • James and the Giant Peach, based on the eponymous book by Roald Dahl (1961) is adapted for stage by David Wood and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound editing) and is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kyra Green, Shaun Koch, Dolly Louw and Veronique Mensah, and an alternating children’s cast comprising Caleb Botha, Samuel Hertz, Taro Lue and Gabriel Poulsen. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit org.za
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