Having worked in numerous local theatres, including a dedicated children’s theatre, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many productions aimed at toddlers and early years, but very few have captured an audience quite like this production of James and the Giant Peach. I went along to a Saturday matinee performance (a rare occasion when parents feel safe to unleash their little ones among the regular theatre-going audience) and was surprised to find that from start to finish nothing interrupted James and his array of insect friends except joyful gasps and a little boy proudly recounting the story to his mum and dad just over my shoulder.
Every year Northern Stage shun the traditional pantomime in favour of a tale inspired by a classic children’s novel. Last year we were treated to a colourful version of The Wizard of Oz, but in the year that we celebrated 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach was a natural choice. The show kicked off in 1950s New York, where we met James and his friends on a tour of the city’s main attractions, before they took us back in time to narrate the story we all know and love – with hints of the fabulous Fifties throughout.
From the moment you walk into the auditorium, you are transported into a magic world. Having removed the divide between Stage One and Stage Two to create an epic space, much of the action takes place on a peach-shaped stage in the middle of the room with the audience on three sides, while the background is framed with red curtains, fairy lights and musical instruments, like the most exclusive jazz club.
One by one James introduced his friends to the audience – the Russian spider dressed in fishnets and high heels, the ladybird in her petticoat and polka dot dress, the grasshopper in green top hat and tails and centipede in oversized blazer and pantaloons with a colourful shoe pattern (for all her many legs of course) – and the action quickly unfurled.
The production stuck faithfully to the book (much to the delight of the young boy behind me who had clearly done his homework). From James’ parents being killed by a rhinoceros (created with strobe lights and umbrellas) and his terrible treatment at the hands of the wicked aunts Spiker and Sponge to the magic crocodile tongues and the peach that grew to the size of house, the story was captured scene by scene in the most engaging way.
But where Northern Stage truly excelled was with all the creative touches that gave the story more sparkle and pizazz than any child could possibly have dreamt. Each of the characters played an instrument live on stage, banging drums, tinkling the ivories and strumming guitars between scenes, while also whizzing around the auditorium on scooters, skipping with ropes and capturing the excitement of the best children’s party.
The audience themselves were not mere bystanders. Early on beach balls were thrown into the auditorium to capture the joy of the seaside trips James used to take with his parents (compared to the harsh reality of life with his aunts) and this set the tone for the rest of the show. During the underwater scene bubbles fell from the ceiling and each child was given a shark fin hat to create the treacherous waters. Likewise as the peach soared high over New York at the end of the show, a giant balloon was brought out into the auditorium and the children were responsible for keeping it in the air – much to the delight of everyone involved.
By the time the show came to an end and our talented cast took their final bows, children were dancing in their seats, shrieking with excitement and parents bursting with pride at how well behaved they all had been. The perfect blend of excitement and entertainment, James and the Giant Peach was an absolute joy. If you’re thinking of introducing your little ones to the wonderful world of theatre, you’ll struggle to find anything better.
James and the Giant Peach will be performed at Northern Stage, Newcastle until Saturday 31 December. For more information or to book tickets visit www.northernstage.co.uk