James and the Giant Peach
James and the Giant Peach Review
Written by Leah Anderson
Playing with Snails theatre has embarked on the final leg of their Australia-wide tour of ‘James and the Giant Peach’ with a highly polished, well-rounded and energetic performance at the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre. This Roald Dahl classic, adapted by David Wood and directed by Laura Cooney is brought to life by Aleksa Kurbalija as James, Blake Testro as the Centipede, David Goldthorpe as the Earthworm, Jacqueline Hoy as Miss Spider, Laura Cooney as the Ladybird, Michael Laity as the Grasshopper, Lauren McKenna as Swing, and James Stafford as Aunt Spiker.
After years of feeling like an outsider in the house of his despicable Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, James Henry Trotter accidentally drops a bag full of magic by the old peach tree, causing the peach at the top of the tree to grow to the size of a house, complete with a door and resident bugs. With a snip of the stem, the peach begins to roll away and the adventure begins.
You could be forgiven for thinking that apiece of touring children’s theatre, must have to make use of simple set design and lighting. I assure you this is not the case with ‘James and the Giant Peach’. The very rudimentary-looking ‘Peach’, which dominates the stage right throughout the performance, serves as a highly sophisticated piece of technical equipment as it transforms space, enables fast costume changes, hides puppets, lights, backdrops and performers while carrying the story, and indeed most of the cast! Peter King and Matt Best have clearly gone to great lengths to make this main set piece as operational, practical and versatile as possible. Visually, however, I felt that the ‘Peach’ lacked the 3 dimensionality evident in the rest of the set and the costumes. The Peach tree and stump had a pixar-style cartoon look about them, which fitted in well with the colorful, stylized costumes and the overall feel of the show, but the ‘Peach’ lacked the rounded edges, shading and texture that would have allowed it to marry in with the overall aesthetic.
Jason Bovaird’s lighting is generally known for its grandeur and spectacle, but this time, he has pared it back. As it is a touring production with a very tight bump-in/bump-out schedule, whether this was out of choice or necessity, is unclear, but the final result is slick, seamless and does not overpower the performance in any way. Simple effects and moving elements made the ‘Peach’ appear to fly, fall, spin and crash and while there are some stand out visual effects achieved through the use of black lights and speckled gobos, it was amusing to notice that the very young audience seemed to enjoy the simple ‘rainbow’ projection the most.
The cast maintained an energy level worthy of a Disney theme park and this held the audience’s focus throughout the 70-minute show. This is no mean feat for an audience comprised mainly of hyped up primary school-aged children! The entire cast held the audience’s attention in the palms of their hands, controlling the kid’s responses, volume and engagement like a finely tuned machine. It is clear that the performers have worked through every element of this show thoroughly. Every movement, song, line and expression was considered, authentic and never patronizing. The audience appreciated their fine-tuned skills and I appreciated their attention to diction and pitch when singing! A standout for me was Michael Laity, who played the grasshopper. His elegant, committed and gentle portrayal of a jumpy, older character made him ultimately likeable.
This performance has something for everyone. The right balance of visual jokes to entertain the kids, one-liners to keep the adults giggling and a straightforward, script that doesn’t ‘beat around the bush’ or try to sugar coat the bad-guy characters.
If I could have one little ‘niggle’, it would be the occasional grammatical ‘tense’ mistake in the script. At one stage I cringed a little when I heard, “Everyone felt better now” but whether this was a script error or an on-the-spot mistake will remain a forgivable mystery.
With the school holidays almost over, and only 5 dates remaining on the tour, I congratulate Playing with Snails Theatre on an excellent, contemporary take on the 51 year-old story ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and encourage you to take your kids to see this Roald Dahl classic, brought to life for the next generation.
11 July Hallam Community Theatre 10am & 1pm
12 July Portland Civic Hall 7:30pm
13 July Kyneton Town Hall 6:30pm
14 July Kyneton Town Hall 2pm
18 July Swan Hill Performing Arts Centre 10am