Does Roald Dahl’s magical tale really work on stage?

James and the Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach - Credit: Archant

Arts Editor Andrew Clarke has been to Colchester’s Mercury Theatre to find out, meeting theatre director Matthew Cullum to discuss the thrills and the challenges of transferring the colour and excitement of Dahl’s world from the page to the stage.

James and the Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach - Credit: Archant

If you want to create a juicy theatrical treat that will entertain both children and adults alike while also injecting a healthy dose of irreverent humour and lots of dark imaginings into the mix, then Roald Dahl is the author for you.

This weekend Colchester’s Mercury Theatre is launching a new experiment – summer family theatre. They are opening a three week run of James and the Giant Peach, a bespoke piece of theatre, made in Colchester which will provide audiences of all ages with an escape from dull days, wet weekends and summer boredom.

The production runs until the end of August and artistic director Daniel Buckroyd hopes that family theatre will become a regular feature of the Mercury’s summer programme. He said: “It’s become obvious during my time at the Mercury that there is a huge demand for high quality family theatre in our area. In this age of ‘on-demand’, where everyone has some kind of screen of their own at home, families want to enjoy an extraordinary live moment together. It made no sense for us to be closed during the summer holidays – and I’m delighted that James and the Giant Peach is currently on track to be our biggest selling show of the year.”

The Mercury is putting a lot of resources into the show and is treating the production with the same care as they would any of their showcase plays during the spring or autumn seasons. Director Matthew Cullum has been in pre-production for three months before the actors turned up for the first day of rehearsal.

James and the Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach - Credit: Archant

“We had to take a lot of the creative decisions a long way in advance, before we even starting casting. We had to know what we were doing, what skills we needed the actors to have – how we were going transfer this classic story from the page to the stage.

“I needed to talk to the designers early on to work out exactly what was possible to create on stage, what we could achieve on a realistic budget. We wanted it to be full of invention and imagination. We wanted to transfer the sense of wonder that Dahl’s writing conjures up in the mind of the reader. We wanted to create a spectacular piece of theatre that appealed to a genuine family audience. It should entertain children and grown-ups equally.”

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He said that the prospect of staging a classic piece of children’s literature was an exciting and daunting prospect. “It’s a crazy idea to try and stage James and the Giant Peach. Not only do we need a giant peach, but we need giant friendly insects to live inside it, hundreds of seagulls to fly it across the sea, hungry sharks trying to eat it, evil aunts trying to sell it, some helicopters filming it, and even an escaping rhinoceros chasing people around it! It’s a crazy idea and when Daniel asked me to direct it I thought what a ridiculous, funny and brilliant adventure - let’s throw caution to the wind - let’s do it.”

He said that once the production process was underway, the excitement was frequently tempered with a sense of trepidation. “You can never escape the fact that James and the Giant Peach is a well-loved piece of many people’s childhood. You not only have to contend with the expectations of the current generation but also of their parents generation and their grand-parents.

“Roald Dahl is the master storyteller and everyone who has read the book will have these vivid images in their heads drawn from his evocative writing. Everyone will have their own expectation of what the story is and how it will look. You certainly don’t want to get it wrong for them but equally you want to bring as much excitement, invention and fun as you can to the stage version. You want to keep the world that Roald Dahl created alive.

“Visually I think people are very influenced by Quentin Blake’s very quirky, slightly scratchy, slightly upside down representation of the world that Blake’s illustrations give us. We bring these expectations, these choices to every decision that we make and hopefully it will re-create that magical world that Roald Dahl first brought to life in his storytelling.”

He said that theatre was a good place to breathe new life into Dahl’s writing because it encouraged audiences to actively engage with the performance on stage and use their imaginations rather than be passive observers.

That way they are bringing part of their vision of the story to the performance and the best special effects still occur in the human imagination.

“Because theatre thrives on creating a dialogue with a audience it works better in these situations than film because film is too literal. It can only deliver the director’s vision whereas theatre encourages a more personal response.

“There’s no pretence that the audience isn’t there. We are asking them to come on this journey with us. From the word ‘go’ on this production we are talking to the audience and we are giving them a guided tour of New York City which culminates with visiting this peach stone in Central Park.

“Because we are undertaking this adventure together we hope that they will get the same sense of fun, fear, tension, suspense and comedy that we get in the telling of the story.”

The story follows the adventures of a young lad called James who spills a bag of magic on an old peach tree. He watches in amazement as a peach on the tree grows to such a size that it’s almost as big as a house.

Inside this magical peach he meets five larger-than-life garden bugs and together they embark on a transatlantic adventure, taking them from the White Cliffs of Dover all the way to the Empire State Building.

The Mercury are using the RSC adaptation of the story written by David Woods in conjunction with the Dahl estate.

“It’s a fabulous, fast-moving story which will leave you giddy. David has become very skilled at getting inside the mind of Roald Dahl because he has adapted eight different books now and he’s found a way of filtering Dahl’s writing so the spirit of it survives in a theatrical form, on stage.

“It’s incredibly dense. You get two lines from mum and dad, then next minute they are being eaten by a rhinoceros and the minute after that James is at his aunt’s house, knocking on the door.

“Within a page you have visited four or five different locations and he pulls together all the lines and moments that work dramatically for an audience and preserves the feel of the book.”

He said that the script leaves Matthew and his team plenty of room to put their own stamp on the performance.

“We are using a lot of puppets. It’s an actor-musician show so there are songs through it and the actors playing the insects play their own instruments and everyone dances. Everyone does everything helping to create a believably magical world.”

He said that they will be using a lot of theatrical tricks and devices to instantaneously transport the characters and the audience to a dazzling array of different locales.

They have also spent a long time dreaming up sequences and props which seed the play with ideas that will pop up later in the story.

Matthew said a lot of time and effort has gone into telling the story visually as well as through dialogue.

“I have just re-discovered the stories. I am now reading to my son, stories I first encountered as a child and I am being reminded how brilliant they are and how clever Dahl is as a storyteller.

“The characters are dark enough and there is enough danger for the stories to work for an adult as well as a child.

“His work is all about families and that’s what we are about. We are also using some sophisticated theatrical devices to tell the story. We go from using something simple like a coat and hat to creating a character that can float around the stage to sending a reporter out into the audience with a real camera and a microphone which relays footage back to televisions on stage.

“Members of the audience will appear on the televisions when we do news-flashes about this Giant Peach. They will feed the media hype that surrounds this strange fruit.”

He said that as a result of this sophisticated performance the casting process was intensive and drawn-out.

The demands of the music meant that not only did the actors have to look right for the part, and interact well with their co-stars they also had to play the right instruments, dictated by the score, and be able to sing.

“They also had to play their instruments to a high standard because it’s quite a complex, intricate score.

“But, I am thrilled with the cast I have got. As a director you can spend a long time getting everyone to work together as a company. This group bonded within the first couple of days of getting to know one another and it’s really helped rehearsals and we have got a great show as a result.”

Matthew Cullum said that one of the highlights of the show would be an opportunity for the audience to come and meet the insects.

“We will be maintaining that sense of magic by allowing the audience to come and meet the insects after the show. They won’t meet the actors, they will meet the insects, the characters. We will be maintaining that illusion so the children will take that memory away with them.

“The reason is that when I was very little, my parents took me to see Cats in London and during the interval Brian Blessed stayed on stage, in character, and you could go up and talk to him and get his autograph.

“I remember doing that and being absolutely captivated by the experience. The thrill of going up onto the stage and meeting this fantastic character. It was truly magical and stayed with me and I think it is important that children and young families see theatre as something that they can really connect with.”

James and The Giant Peach will be at the Mercury Theatre until Saturday, August 30.