James and the Giant Peach review – a thrilling psychedelic trip

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
This seasonal offering for younger audiences roots Roald Dahl’s dark, fantastical tale firmly in the far-out 60s

The laws of present-giving tell us that the lower the age of the recipient, delight in the gift will always be in inverse proportion to fascination with the box. The Playhouse’s seasonal offering for younger audiences is accordingly a triumph of the imaginative possibilities of cardboard. Fly Davis’s brown, corrugated design brilliantly explodes into life when an abandoned carton rears up to become the escaped rhinoceros that – in a twist of horror and absurdity that only Roald Dahl could have come up with – gores James’s parents to death in the middle of Regent Street.

Max Webster’s production equally reminds us that Dahl’s early heroes and heroines were children of the 60s. Written in 1962, James and the Giant Peach anticipated the explosion of psychedelia by some years: yet a journey across the Atlantic in an airborne nectarine full of giant, talking insects is nothing if not an extremely strange trip. Webster enhances the effect by transforming James’s friends into a laid-back garage band who rehearse in the enormous fruit. Adam Pleeth’s electric score has an authentically hazy flavour – you thought Hendrix was good? Imagine how he’d have sounded if he had eight legs.

It also makes perfect sense that James’s creepily oppressive guardians, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, should be so comparatively square (though Beverly Rudd’s well-padded sponge is, in truth, practically spherical). As James, Chris Lew Kum Hoi, charts a thrilling journey from monochrome childhood to a Technicolor adolescence, though the moral within David Wood’s adaptation remains darkly ambiguous. Was Dahl really suggesting that it’s a good idea to accept a bag of unidentified enchantments from a strange old man who hangs about at the bottom of the garden? But maybe James’s function is like that of the early rock stars, to accept the dubious substances and experience the strange adventures so we don’t have to.

• Until 24 January. Box office: 0113-213 7700. Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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