Magical show misses a trick

Hannah Fair and Marsha Vinogradova 2 November 2007

It is undeniably a challenge to bring Roald Dahl’s much loved story, James and the Giant Peach, to the stage. Featuring anthropomorphic insects, transatlantic adventure and, of course, a very large peach, this tale certainly takes some magic and ingenuity in the telling. Director Oli Robinson clearly took an energetic if incoherent approach to this play, with the production helter-skeltering between different modes of performance: self-conscious story-telling, poorly performed puppetry, live action, direct audience participation and rather naff mime. Sadly, unlike the peach in question, the production never took off the ground. The play was ripe with good intentions and dynamic ideas, yet sadly most of these never bore fruit. The fluid multi-rolling, and integration of music throughout worked admirably, however the shabby design and poor operation of the puppets threw that conceit out of the window. Suspension of disbelief also faltered when faced with the laughably unpopulated ‘flock’ of seagull puppets.

Visually, stylistically and technically the play was a mess: Robinson failed to bring coherence to the piece, and sadly often potentially exciting symbolic techniques flopped. Much of the action was unclear, and was certainly not aided by a burst of deafening feedback and the inexplicable decision to repeatedly throw the stage into near-darkness, while lighting the audience. The majority of the acting was equally unfocused, presenting the audience with little more than a troupe of grotesque and patronising Blue Peter presenters.

However, Thomas Edwards as the melancholic ‘Earthworm’ helped this production crawl out of the mire of mediocrity. Though playing merely a blind and limbless annelid, Edwards’ demonstrated a multitude of talents. At ease with the text and conscious of his own physicality, Edwards proved himself a masterful comic, musician and puppeteer, capable of irony and of producing fantastic underwater noises. Edwards was well supported by Rob Frimston as ‘James’, who gave a solid performance and brought a degree of professionalism to the show, while sporting his boyish shorts, remarkably familiar from Narnia days.

While ‘James’ and his insect mates may have had their dreams come true, many in the audience were left disappointed at the sight of the static, patchy cardboard peach. So much more could have been done with this show, and so many great ideas could have been followed through. Tempting as this production may look, I wouldn’t risk taking another bite.

Hannah Fair and Marsha Vinogradova