By Mike Savill
‘Community theatre’, ‘semi-professional’, ‘am-dram’ – call it what you will but for the vast majority of us that practise it, this is a hobby- albeit a sometimes all-consuming, emotionally fluctuating, midnight oil burning and, very occasionally, potentially lucrative one. And like most hobbies it is only fun when one can get immersed into it. Inclusivity is the key and this has been nowhere better exemplified to me in recent times than in the marvellous youth group production of James and the Giant Peach.
I admit it, I have never seen a youth production before! Mea culpa! And a mistake it seems. Even before curtain up there was a palpably different feeling to other nights I’d experienced in the packed out auditorium. A younger audience of friends and family created a sense of excitement and anticipation that one could not help be drawn into. And there could be no doubt that this was reflected by the energy and enthusiasm that would burst from the stage once the show was underway.
From the off, with a delightfully executed rhinoceros attack (you had to be there!) the tone was set by a perfectly pitched quartet of narrators, (Edie Nelson, Amber Warne, Aneira Knight and Alex Covill) engaging and drawing the audience in with confident delivery and clear presence. The bar was set for the whole company, and though there was a variation in such deliveries – inclusivity being the watchword here -this was clearly an ensemble piece where every member of the cast had their moment and delivered their all. To nit-pick would be churlish, these are young men and women, for a number it was their first time on stage, and I can only wholeheartedly echo the opinions of many who saw this show – the future of BLT is in safe hands. There were so many excellent performances and I would genuinely love to commend them all but I simply don’t have the words (number that is rather than choice).
To name but a few then, it would be remiss not to start with James Humphrey’s wonderfully cantankerous and curmudgeonly performance as Earthworm; a remarkable piece of characterisation, expressive in both delivery and facial expression and, at many times, very funny. Not bad for a character with no arms or legs.
In comparison, Raphael Phillips’ Centipede was marvellously realised with an excess of limbs, and with a swagger and confidence that became infectious, truly engaging with his enthusiastic energy and ebullience throughout. Charlotte Lees gave a compelling performance as Spider, her look again being absolutely perfect and her delivery bold, varied and adeptly conveying the inner arachnid, marvellously supported, amongst others, by Kira O’Sullivan’s warm, cheery and energetic Ladybird and Victor Poland’s Grasshopper suitably sage, mature and assured in characterisation. Jonathan Murray as the titular James, was in good company then and, himself, offered a lively, focussed and concentrated performance which had us rooting for him throughout the duration of the show.
Road Dahl’s delightfully quirky piece of fantasia offers many challenges beyond those of performance though- how could one recreate on stage a shark attack, seagull powered flight, talking insects, the Empire State Building and the titular hyperbolised piece of fruit itself? But such challenges also provide opportunities for innovation and creativity and this was much in abundance. The directorial team of Jess Jenner, Hazel Han, Helen Dunlea and Richard Stewart realised the fantastical scenes and lavish and extraordinary set pieces with creative brilliance and imagination. Costume, light, music, sound effects and puppetry were used to excellent effect; there was a genuine desire to see what creative conceit would be used next, whether it was shoal of shark fins that dangerously swirled around the audience (the auditorium space was used impressively throughout I must add), the spot on reveal and costuming of the characters in the heart of the peach, the glorious demise of Aunts Sponge and Spiker (played with gleeful nastiness by Emma Lopes and Katie Hawkes) or a ticker tape parade in downtown Manhattan. Less is more seemed to be the steering principal here and it truly worked, giving audiences just enough to spur their imaginations into realising the extraordinary scenes from Dahl’s seminal book.
Above all, though, this show was fun! Dozens of young people had come together, some of them clearly seeking to immerse themselves in the ‘hobby’ of which I wrote at the beginning, others simply dipping their toe in, but whatever the case, here they produced an enjoyable, engaging night of theatre, albeit carefully steered by an experienced helm, which was unequivocally theirs. I cannot commend the evening enough and only hope that more and more BLT audience members who, like me, had never seen a youth group piece before, will join me in enjoying their work in the years to come.