Review: James and the Giant Peach – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Cremorne Theatre QPAC

Southbank was teeming with littlies yesterday. Of course, it’s summer time and school holidays so, apart from swimming and eating icecream on a hot Brisbane Saturday afternoon, there were lots of things to do – singing, mask-making, theatre-going and story-telling among them. I had lunch while a bunch of what looked like under-5s were jumping and rolling around on the QPAC Green. They were learning all about Iggy the Iguanadon via a song – we have the Queensland Museum to thank for this, I suspect. I wished I had a small person with me; it looked so much fun and I wanted to share it with them. There were also a whole lot of families getting stuck into creative activities in the Playzone. Upstairs Mary Poppins was about to take off while, just down the road at the Cremorne Theatre, kids and their adults could go to a matinée performance of Harvest Rain’s latest production James and the Giant Peach, adapted by David Wood from the story by Roal Dahl. That’s where I was headed.

I remember this particular book from years ago. My kids loved being read to and then to read Dahl’s books as they got older; he remained a favourite into young adulthood. They switched their imaginations on and escaped into other worlds via books – at first picture books and then the word-dense stories like James and the Giant Peach. It’s a lovely fable about the capacity of imagination to transform lives.

James Henry Trotter (Jack Kelly) is a sweet little boy who is suffering under the cruel hand of his two grotesque aunts: Sponge and Spiker. He is an orphan – his parents were eaten by a runaway rhino (no less) on a visit to London, poor mite! He’s sent to live with his two awful aunts in a ‘queer ramshackle house on the top of a high hill in the south of England.’ Dahl’s tale is all about a frightened boy who escapes the horrors of dysfunctional family life and finds friendship and adventures via magic – yes, fantastical, wonderful magic! James ages from 4 to 7 in the original book – and this is about the right age range for the children in the audience. A couple of older kids around me appeared to be less entertained than were the littlies.

Mr Wood’s stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach omits some of the plot elements in the original work, but director Tim O’Connor adds the company’s musical theatre signature style via some original numbers composed by Musical Director Maitlohn Drew and which draw upon Dahl’s poetry for lyrics. The cast of six (augmented by a small ensemble of HR’s interns) are in high energy mode for what is a fast-paced, 50 minute romp. Sandro ColarelliClare FinlaysonBelinda HeitJudy Hainsworth and Dash Kruk bring the insects and human figures to life with skill and gusto.

The production has a semi panto feel to it; the audience is encouraged throughout to applaud various characters and to respond to questions from the stage – yes, the ‘fourth wall’ is very much down (Ed. oops, ‘up’ of course) in this production. Visuals – lighting by Jason Glenwright, and costumes, set, and, especially, the giant peach – a 1.5 tonne, 5m revolving set piece by designer Josh McIntosh – are great fun and, finally, the most memorable aspects of the show. I thought some good opportunities to augment the fantasy story-line were lost by not using more shadow puppetry especially during the great voyage of the peach. The set is tailor-made for it.

Reading and theatre are different forms of story-telling. Each has its strengths, and theatre and film are terrific ways of introducing young and old to the joys of a good book. I’m not sure whether the converse is equally true. I’m mindful, though, that comparing the outcome or simply one form to another is like comparing apples with … peaches? Still, I couldn’t help feeling that this adaptation did not do justice entirely to the strengths of this fantastical book which, through words alone, are able to stimulate the imagination of the reader or listener in ways that the staged version cannot. The kids were urged in a curiously gratuitous ‘tour-guide’ to NYC preamble to the show to ’switch on their imaginations,’ and they needed to when it came to going along for the ride with a ‘flying peach’ that clearly did not go anywhere. A few around me were puzzled: ‘What’s happening?’ ‘It’s not moving.’ I wonder whether the staging of some stories can ask too much of the stage’s capabilities, however good one’s imagination.

The scenes that really worked and did so very well were those where the larger than life characters interacted with one another and moved the narrative right along. I would have loved another character – a storyteller set apart from the characters within James’ story. S/he could have contributed the words to stimulate those imaginations when the ask got too big. Finally, using James as narrator did not work for me. The central character is reactive until he is called upon to become a resourceful ‘hero’ to his insect friends – another version of the age-old hero quest story. In the staged version he is called on to play the role of narrator – encouraging the children in the audience to applaud, or to respond, ‘I can’t hear you,’ panto style from time to time. In so doing, he becomes something of an adult authority figure. In the eyes of the audience, he is capable from the outset. As a result ‘James’ loses his vulnerability. Mr Kelly does a fine job playing the boy and the interlocutor by turn, but it’s a big ask.

James and The Giant Peach runs until January 21 at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC