Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
What is the enduring appeal of the stories of Roald Dahl?
Is it the fantastic situations the child protagonists find themselves in, like Charlie in a theme-park candy factory, or Sophie in a country of child-eating giants?
Is it the laughable yet dangerous ineptitude of the parental figures, like Mr and Mrs Wormwood (self-absorbed and oblivious of daughter Matilda) or Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – continuously cruel to the orphaned James?
Or is it these child protagonists themselves, with their knack for besting these inept adults to create their own happy endings – like Charlie winning his chocolate factory, Matilda facing down her malicious headmistress, or James escaping his aunts’ greedy clutches via peach transport?
It can’t be denied that Dahl’s stories are outlandish, atmospheric and even creepy. Yet where they might simply frighten, they captivate instead. Having established themselves as a staple of children’s literature, they have secured a place in hearts and imaginations across generations. Bring up Dahl’s name…. and chances are, nearly everyone in earshot can name a favourite character and story. The books connote coziness – they are stories perfect for reading aloud at bedtime (a ritual which catalyzed some of Dahl’s novels) and for inspiring vivid dreams.
Without a doubt, these comfortable associations with James and the Giant Peach, Dahl’s first book, will draw audiences in droves when the musical returns to the Young People’s Theatre (YPT) in a brand new production. Matthew Nethersole, well-known for his stage and television work, is assuming the title role and relates to the story directly: “I’ve always loved this story since I was a kid; it is one of my all-time childhood favourites.” He describes the opportunity to play James as a “real privilege. I feel very lucky.”
And he is hardly alone. It’s clear from watching YPT’s “Meet and Greet” video, filmed on the first rehearsal day, that his castmates and creative team share his sentiment. In the video, Director Nina Lee Aquino relates her own personal connection: James and the Giant Peach is her daughter’s most favourite story, and she slept with the book under her pillow. The day after hearing that her mother would be directing the musical at YPT, she placed the book under her mother’s pillow, with a note entrusting her to “take care of it” – a metaphor that Lee Aquino holds close and which has undoubtedly informed her depiction of this beloved story.
Nethersole remarks on a sensitivity in Lee Aquino’s interpretation which seems to channel her daughter’s appeal: “Our director is incredible at finding the humanity in every story beat,” he observes. “She sees straight to the heart of the moment, and once you get on board, it is clear how your character is feeling and why – then you endeavour to use your talent/empathy/technique/experience to convey that to the audience.”
The otherworldly settings and outrageous adult characters in Dahl’s novels are balanced by the relatable portrayals of ordinary children finding ingenious ways to navigate their extraordinary circumstances. This universality is a big part of what people relate to – not to mention the cleverness and cheeky humour of the storytelling itself.
Nethersole sees his own curiosity reflected in the character, though he also recognizes that “James is perhaps a bit more courageous than I am.” He adds, “James also displays a lot of bravery and selflessness, and I admire him for that.” (And in case anyone had any doubt, Nethersole also underlines a second contrast between the two: his own aunts are a lot nicer than James’!)
When Nethersole first came to this production, he admits to expecting to tell this story in a farcical or perhaps larger-than-life way: “To my delight, we are working towards a more grounded portrayal and one with a lot of heart.” At a performance of James, audiences can expect to laugh and still remain conscious of the value of grit, ingenuity, trust, compassion and collaboration. Yet at the same time, they will feel transported to another reality – one where James undertakes a transatlantic voyage in a peach, accompanied by a nurturing ladybug, a surly centipede, an underconfident worm, a musically-talented grasshopper and a many-handed spider! “As for the absurdity,” Nethersole smiles, “the story is so inherently absurd you’d have to work pretty hard not to honour it. It’s coming quite naturally!”
So while Nethersole revels in the absurdity of James’ story and its comic potential, he also appreciates the need to portray James in a credible way so that the young people in the audience can sympathize with him. He is no stranger to young audiences: his characterization of Sylvio Snake on the popular CBC Kids program The Moblees has underscored to him the need for authentic, clear characterization that avoids ambivalence. “Adults understand that to watch a play, they must suspend their disbelief, but kids won’t do that quite so willingly,” he observes. “Kids will not suspend their disbelief unless you earn it, and to do that, you must be truthful. As actors, we always seek to be honest and believable, but performing for kids really tests our ability to do that. That said, once they agree to come on the ride, kids are some of the most engaged audiences you’ll ever perform for.”
So just what should young people expect from James and The Giant Peach? YPT’s 2014 production of the musical, directed by Sue Miner, was extended due to audience demand. If Nethersole’s own enthusiasm is a predictor, this production may prove equally popular. When he thinks of YPT, his immediate thought is “inclusivity and diversity,” which speaks to YPT’s keen awareness of its audience, and careful attention to the stories it wants to tell. In this light, this production of James and the Giant Peach seeks to provide a lively experience for all theatregoers, while exploring meaningful themes to stimulate dialogue on the ride home. Nethersole is plainly pumped about the show experience, and offers this final thought: “Jennifer Villaverde and I sing a riff in harmony together in the closing number, and I look forward to it every time. It’s so fun to sing! I am so excited to share this show with our audiences.”
News You Can Use
What: James and the Giant Peach
Who: Audiences 6 years of age and up
When: Onstage until March 18, 2017, with extra performances during March Break
Where: Young People’s Theatre, Mainstage, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Information and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.ca or 416.862.2222
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya