James and the Giant Peach

Written by Flossie Waite
Presented by Sell A Door Theatre Company
Reviewed at Greenwich Theatre 
Touring nationally Spring/Summer 2016
For all the family

Roald Dahl was notoriously critical about adaptations of his work: he hated the 1971 film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, feeling in particular that Gene Wilder was the wrong choice for Wonka; he disliked the 1989 straight-to-TV movie of The BFG; and he described the 1990 version of The Witches as “utterly appalling”. Dahl became so wary of these re-workings that he refused all attempts at a film version of James and the Giant Peach during his lifetime. So it’s hard to imagine he would be thrilled at the onslaught of adaptations, in every medium, happening during his centenary year. Watching Sell A Door’s production of James and the Giant Peach, you can see why he’d be worried – this brightly-coloured, all-singing-and-dancing version is a far cry from the dark, and at times frightening, original book. But even the most loyal Dahl fan would be impressed by this high-octane show, moving at breakneck pace through the story and using everything in its arsenal to create an engaging, entertaining performance.

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James and the Giant Peach, written in 1961, may have been only the second of Roald’s children’s books, but he had already developed his trademark macabre style. In fact, the novel has been regularly censored over the past 55 years, in attempts to protect young readers from the story of a boy orphaned in an horrific rhinoceros attack, forced to live with two horrid aunts who use him as slave labour, and destined to live inside some giant fruit and become best friends with over-sized bug. David Wood’s script tells the story backwards, so that the action begins with the end of Dahl’s text: James and the insect gang safely in New York, narrating their journey to adoring crowds. From the off, the audience is sure of a happy ending and all suspense is quickly reduced – this play brings a light touch to even the darkest of moments.

The brashy beginning – a high-pitched, chirpy, visor-wearing New Yorker doing some ‘I can’t hear you!’ shtick with the audience – is an appropriate indicator of what’s to follow. Roald Dahl’s characters are always larger than life, but this production offers a cartoon cast rather than grotesque caricature – James’s dastardly aunts, for example, are essentially Cinderella’s two ugly sisters, superficial rather than scary. The pantomime-quality can be felt throughout, in big choreographed numbers and a generous sprinkling of audience interaction (an inflatable peach flying through the audience is a particularly nice touch).

Roald Dahl, often named the world’s greatest storyteller, offers such excellent source material that it would be difficult to really mess up an adaptation of his book. So even though Sell A Door haven’t captured the spirit of his work, you can’t help but enjoy James and the Giant Peach, even if it’s not exactly what Roald Dahl would have wanted.

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