Like traditional fairytales, Dahl’s story contains a degree of cruelty and plenty of testing tasks for the young hero. James Henry Trotter’s parents are squashed by a runaway rhinoceros in Oxford Street (whoops) so he is sent to live with a pair of horrid Ugly Sister-style aunts, plump Aunt Sponge and scrawny Aunt Spiker.
One day a strange old man gives James a bag of magic crystals of crocodile tongues which cause an enormous peach to grow on the tree in the aunts’ garden. When James crawls inside he meets a set of over-sized insects living in the stone. Together Centipede, Ladybird, Grasshopper, Earthworm and Spider embark on an adventurous journey with James, during which he solves problems - proposing that seagulls tied to the stem with spider silk will lift the peach above the ocean, for instance - and becomes a hero, saving the life of silly drowning Centipede (a pleasantly raucous Timothy Speyer). Eventually they all arrive to a rapturous reception in New York.
On my visit, the school parties of over-fives, well acquainted with Dahl, didn’t turn a hair at the parental loss, were delighted to see two-dimensional squashed aunts sticking to the tumbling peach, but gasped when Spiker ripped the head off James’ teddy.
Stefanski reads his audience well, eliciting their help in passing the inflated peach over their heads or manipulating sharks’ tails (some of which seemed to be swimming upside down) to indicate a threat to the sailing peach, while still keeping their rapt attention. If adults marvel at the complexity or simplicity of the design solutions - the peach appears in various guises, but the rhinoceros is two people, a coat and an umbrella - the children are fully engaged with the story. They may be a little disappointed that the vicious Cloud-Men and their armoury of hailstones are absent, but there are plenty of compensations: atmospheric music (by Olly Fox), a personable and believably young hero in Saikat Ahamed and strong support from his squabbling creature-friends.
- Heather Neill