Never satisfied with just another undemanding Christmas show for children, Northern Stage’s James and the Giant Peach is up there with the West End shows for its production value – and on a fraction of the budget.
So, here’s a new thing on this blog – a review of a show aimed primarily at children. I’ve previously reviewed family shows that have also been very popular to adult audiences, but now that I have a nephew and niece who are old enough to go to the theatre it’s time to rediscover this. I will declare at this point, I am a certified pantomime-hater. I accept they are necessary to keep theatre solvent, but I just found them depressingly garish and formulaic, especially the big commercial ones who rely primarily on big-name celebrities from soaps I never watch. If anything, the pantomimes I liked the most as a child were the ones my local amdram society put on. They were sometimes great and sometimes dire, but they were always fresh and original.
Anyway, in a pre-emptive move to ward my nephew and niece off horrible formulaic celebrity-driven pantomimes, I took them to see this year’s Christmas production at Northern Stage, James and the Giant Peach. This is not a straight stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book, but an ambitious musical adaptation from David Wood. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow appraisal of the show, because other people are far better experts of children’s shows than me. But what I can comment on are the production values. On that front, it blows the competition from commercial pantomimes out the water. In fact, the production values are comparable with those of a touring West End production, if not better.
Part of the reason this is so good is how this has been staged. As Roald Dahl fans will know, this story begins when James’s parents are eaten by a escaped rhinoceros (haven’t we all lost a parent or two to an escaped man-eating pachyderm?). That’s quite a challenge to put on stage, let alone a peach that grows on a tree from peach size to giant peach size in the home of James’s cruel foster-parents, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. But director Michael Calvert rose to all of these challenges with a multitude of clever solution, never relying on uber-expensive uber-flashy stage devices but easy-to-stage solutions that work just as effectively. The umbrellas carried by passers-by for that fateful London day quickly change into the skin of the monohorned monster. All sorts of things were used to represent the growing peach, including progressively bigger orange balls, a giant orange shadow projection, and a flat peach of the floor with the ingenious touch of a tree in Spiker & Sponge’s garden becoming the stalk of the peach later.
And it doesn’t stop there. As our hero James and his intrepid creepy-crawlies make their way over the Atlantic ocean, all sorts of clever devices are used for all sort of things you’d think weren’t stageable, too numerous to mention. But by far the best scene has to be the underwater sequence where James dives into the brine to rescue an insect overboard. Blue lighting, fish puppets, beautiful lighting and music and bubbles all over the theatre make for a fantastic scene.
The cast too do an excellent job in the play, and a lot of this is down to The Letter Room. Every year since 2013 Northern Stage have supported and set up a young company, but it’s the original group from the inaugural year who have made the most impact. I knew this lot were going to be insanely talented after seeing their own all-singing all-dancing production Five Feet in Front, and they didn’t not disappoint. Making up half the cast of eight, they all play sing and play their own instruments, and every one of them has been absolute superstars in the play. But if you insist on picking a favourite, our consensus is that it’s got to be Maria Crocker as centipede.
Speaking of which, in case you’re wondering how you design a costume for a 42-legged creature on stage, that’s to work of Rhys Jarman, who designed both costume and set. Even taking liberties with the number of legs of these creatures (centipede, for instance, has two arms, two legs, and a costume with pictures of plenty of other legs), there’s never any doubt who’s the grasshopper, who’s the ladybird and who’s the spider. And I could go on listing all the ways in which the team on-stage and off-stage made this what it is. I think the bigger theatres putting on bigger productions may have a lot of cause who Northern Stage have at their disposal.
The only bit of the play that felt a bit odd was the use of the ensemble. This is no reflection on how good the ensemble were, and in no way questioning the need for them (at the very least, surely they needed all hand on deck for the underwater scene), but I frequently couldn’t work out who they were supposed to be, with confusing appearances such as a group of other children at James’s home – wasn’t James supposed to be keep all alone? I suppose in pantomimes and musicals it’s allowed for the ensemble to come on dancing for no reason, but it might have helped to make it clearer who they were. Perhaps they needed more clearly-defined roles as the people on the tour at the beginning hearing about James’s story.
But honestly, there’s so much going on, you barely notice that. The most important question, of course, is whether this is aimed at the right level for the age of the children this is aimed at. As a certified child-hater I cannot comment there (my own nephew and niece are of course incredible but if I had my way I’d send the rest of them down the mines), but my sister advises me it was. So if you’re serious about getting your children interested in theatre more than a once-a-year formulaic soapstar-fest, I cannot think of anything better in the north-east than Northern Stage for them. And if you don’t kids, see it anyway.