Even before the ‘peach’ in James and the Giant Peach breached the (fourth) wall, it became clear to me that the younger members of the Polka Theatre audience were providing very nearly as much entertainment as the production itself, even before the show started. There is something quite innocent about the novelty (from the perspective of the young ‘uns) of tip-up seats and allocated seating. One or two children seemed to deduce seat numbers better than their parents. For my own part I recall coming to this theatre as a schoolboy – trips to West End theatres were not to be done as school trips, because our headteacher was concerned we may get bombed by the IRA, a genuine threat at the time. So we invariably ended up at the Polka instead. It was a privilege to return, decades later, to find the place as buzzing and bristling with life as it was back then.
I only bothered to mention that at all because in the intervening period, the technology available has increased exponentially. For better or for worse, less imagination – no, less imagining – is required on the part of the audience, and less narrative explained. When I was young enough to be in the Polka’s target audience, there was far more stand-and- deliver describing going on, like a Chorus character in a Shakespeare play or the way in which the narrative is pushed forward in the musical Jersey Boys. I have no qualms with Shakespeare plays or Jersey Boys, but some useful and inventive projections are used here, and more is revealed through the set and the staging as opposed to being told (for which read ‘warmly invited’) to imagine – or, to borrow a term from another Roald Dahl classic, Matilda, ‘picture’. A mid-Atlantic rescue is especially worthy of note for its innovative projections to create and maintain the scene. Elsewhere, the depiction of some non-projected scenes is relatively simple yet punches above its weight.
Wonderful costumes absolutely befitting the characters leave nobody confused as to who is who, and while David Wood’s script does not possess the word-perfect faithfulness to Roald Dahl’s text found in Richard George’s earlier adaptation, some considerable thought has clearly been put into this production. I particularly enjoyed the wide vocabulary in a trade of insults between Aunt Sponge (Clive Duncan) and Ebony Feare (Aunt Spiker); had this not been an all-age show, many a contemporary playwright would have reduced them to shouting what I call ‘eff, cee and effing cee’. As such coarse language cannot be gotten away with in a show of this nature, some alternative words must instead be found. The combined literary efforts of Roald Dahl and David Wood are a hoot.
So much goes on in James and the Giant Peach it’s a surprise the show doesn’t last longer than its 1 hour and 45 minutes including interval – an audio version of Dahl’s original book would have you listening to Julian Rhind-Tutt’s dulcet tones for 3 hours and 18 minutes. Only a few extraneous bits are left out of this stage production. But even leaving aside the idea that it’s a play for children adapted from a book for children being performed in a theatre for children, it’s engrossing in its own right.
I’m told this is the most successful of Polka’s shows in its history (which goes back to 1979 in its current form, its origins dating to 1967), and it’s easy to see why. I did feel a little emotionally detached part-way through the first half, but I doubt I would have done if I were still a child – there may be something very relatable in James asking if he can play, or have a picnic, or go down to the beach, or have something to eat, and always being told “No!”. Overall, it’s a lot of fun, filled indeed with “marvellous things” for the young and the young at heart to like and enjoy. An utter delight.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A fantastical adventure half way around the world…
To celebrate Roald Dahl’s centenary year in 2016, Polka is delighted to bring back James and the Giant Peach, based on one of Dahl’s most popular books. Having been last performed in 2009, we are thrilled to be brining Dahl’s work back to the stage to commemorate his continuing influence on children’s literature and entertainment.
With a script by Olivier-Award nominated children’s playwright David Wood, this vibrant production captures the playful spirit of Dahl and brings his eccentric characters bursting to life, engaging directly with a young audience. Running from 27 May – 14 August, James and the Giant Peach is created for ages 5 – 7.
One dark night a mysterious man gives James Henry Trotter an unexpected gift… a bag of glowing, wriggling lights, and a promise of magic. When James drops the bag underneath a dead tree, something amazing happens – a single peach begins to grow, and grow, and grow. Little does James realise that the enormous peach is the beginning of a marvellous adventure and a chance to escape his ghastly aunts…
In a story that spans the English countryside and a journey over the ocean all the way to New York City, this exuberant show makes use of clever staging, puppetry and songs to create a journey that is as stunning as it is funny.
James and the Giant Peach is directed by Roman Stefanski, Associate Director at Polka. Design is by Keith Baker, with lighting by Jim Simmons. Music is by Olly Fox.
27 May – 14 August
A Polka Theatre Production
James and the Giant Peach
Ages 5 – 11
Tickets £15 | Concessions £10 (£1.50 transaction charge per booking)
Main Theatre , approx. 1hour 45 minutes (including interval)
Two performances daily, times vary.
For performance times and to book visit www.polkatheatre.com or call the Box Office on 020 8543 4888
240 The Broadway
London SW19 1SB