James and the Giant Peach

Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by David Wood

Northern Stage

Northern Stage, Newcastle

From 19 November 2016 to 31 December 2016

Review by Peter Lathan

There’s one absolute essential for a Christmas show: it must be fun. It will, I am sure, be difficult to find a Christmas show in the North East (or possibly anywhere else in the country), panto or otherwise, which is more fun than Northern Stage’s James and the Giant Peach.

And, whilst the important thing is for the show to be fun for the kids, it’s always a real bonus if it’s fun for the grown-ups too. James and the Giant Peach is.

Then there are those “Oo!” moments, when the audience gasp in delight (surprise is comparatively easy; delight is much more difficult) at what’s happening in front of them. There are lots of them in James and the Giant Peach. The undersea scene, for example, is full of oohs—and not a few ahs. And no UV! This is much more creative than that old panto staple.

Then there should be opportunities to join in. There are, of course, and we’re not just talking about shouting out here—there’s not a “he’s behind you!” or an “oh no it isn’t!” to be heard anywhere—but the kids get the chance actually to do things—and they love it.

There’s lots of great music, composed by Jeremy Bradfield (with additional music by Tim Dalling), and Martin Hylton’s movement, from slapstick to scooters to skipping to tap-dancing (and so much more), adds loads to the fun.

High energy, huge enthusiasm and commitment from the cast, great costumes, very clever staging ideas… The list of positives goes on and on. Are we building up to a massive “But…” to deflate us all?

No, we are not. I’m sure director Mark Calvert will say the show isn’t perfect and I’m equally sure that the cast of actor-musicians will have reservations about their own performances. You would expect that—is any professional ever totally satisfied?—but their caveats will be things which no audience ever notices, not even rather cynical reviewers who are, normally, not that keen on heaping unalloyed praise on a show.

Of course they do have a great starting point; not only is Dahl’s original novel a classic of children’s literature but adaptor David Wood has been creating successful plays for children for over forty years. And the plot gives directors and designers so many opportunities to exercise their creativity, opportunities which Calvert and his designer Rhys Jarman grab with both hands.

It’s a big show. Not just in terms of the cast (15 of them—and that is big nowadays) but in actual size. The wall is down that separated Stage 1 (the main house) and Stage 2 so the performance area is really deep and there is still room for seating on the sides of the stage. Every inch of what the venue calls the “Epic Space” is used for the vigorous fast-moving dance routines and the knockabout comedy, and there is a seemingly unending supply of trapdoors so a variety of props can be produced when needed.

However, without a good cast all of this would go for nothing and this group of nine actor-musicians, supported by six Performing Arts students from Newcastle College, brings the whole thing alive, creating characters which are totally believable, no small achievement considering they include an earthworm, a ladybird, a grasshopper, a centipede and a spider.

Is this the best Christmas show I’ve seen at Northern Stage since its major refurbishment ten years ago? Definitely.