The best school trip I ever went on was to Sainsbury’s, I think. We took a long walk down the fruit and vegetable aisles, and then learned how to fill doughnuts with jam. School trips have apparently become a lot more sophisticated since then, however, something I realised as I (gently) elbowed my way through the hordes of polo shirt wearing youngsters in the Theatre Royal foyer.
Photo: Ian Tilton/Theatre Royal
We were all there to see the Birmingham Stage Company’s production of James and the Giant Peach, an adaptation of that much-loved book by Roald Dahl which features a band of merry insects and, naturally, a very big peach indeed. I was very excited by the prospect of reliving a part of my childhood for the next hour and a half, so settled down with a large bag of Jelly Babies to watch the play.
As the curtain was raised, the first thing that struck me (besides James’ brave sweater vest and knee-length sock combination) was the orchestra. The musical collective was not hidden away in a pit below the stage as one might expect, but on stage. And what’s more, the instruments were being played by insects themselves (not real ones, of course).
Ladybird was a talented saxophonist, and Spider was exceedingly nimble on the flute for someone with eight legs. Whereas a traditional orchestra might have been alienating for a younger audience, this very visual display gave the inquisitive and inquiring eye something to follow.
There was something charmingly, consciously DIY about the set design: the backdrops were strung across curtain rails or hoisted on pullies, the moon and stars hung on knotted rope from the rafters, and the peach itself grew and grew whilst being inflated by a bicycle pump. The set looked like it had been lovingly stuck together with PVA glue in somebody’s kitchen, but this complimented the nostalgic nature of the plot. The whole thing was beautifully done.
A couple of scenes were also acted out through puppetry, which was very exciting. When James dived into the waves to save Centipede from the sharks, the lights were lowered to reveal a glowing display of UV fish swimming from poles. And the moment in which James’ parents were killed by a rogue rhinoceros was performed using marionettes, which managed to keep everything light-hearted for the junior members or the crowd.
Audience participation formed an integral part of the production too. James’ two nasty aunties, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, wove between the rows of seats trying to prise pocket money off of unsuspecting spectators, which, to be honest, I’m surprised didn’t result in frightened tears.
But the climax of the performance came as the peach began to plummet through the skies of New York, and James cried for us all to blow into the air to keep the fruit aloft. To help our new friends, we all obediently huffed and puffed. I got a little too over involved and began to feel lightheaded.
Then, a big orange balloon dropped from above and was batted about the stalls like a beach ball. This was, however, until somebody’s mum got a little bit too enthusiastic and popped the Peach with what I can only guess was a particularly sharp acrylic nail. The bang hushed the assembly. But James quickly assured us that everything was alright, and the insects took to the stage swiftly to finish the play.
My favourite part of the production was probably the children sat in the row in front of me, who were wearing dungarees and were so cute that I felt my ovaries aching. But my second favourite bit was the fact that at times I actually forgot that I am a twenty year old student with deadlines and boring grown up worries, and just became absorbed in this musical world where everything’s just so exciting and lovely.
I did learn that my Jelly Baby-eating stamina isn’t quite what it used to be, though. I left the theatre feeling a little bit sick, but thoroughly uplifted nonetheless.