Family is at the forefront in ‘James and the Giant Peach’

Annual fall musical goes up at FLATO Academy Theatre this weekend

By Ian McKechnie

The talented cast of 'James and the Giant Peach' assembles on stage at the Academy Theatre following Wednesday dress rehearsal. Photo: Beth Wilson.

Theatregoers are in for a delightful treat – of larger-than-life proportions – when James and the Giant Peach goes up at the FLATO Academy Theatre this weekend.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1961 novel of the same name, the musical follows the adventures of James Henry Trotter, a young English lad who has endured more than his fair share of misfortune. After losing his mother and father to a rhinoceros attack, James is committed to an orphanage before coming under the guardianship of two contemptible and abusive aunts who live in a strange house on the hillside. Not far from the house, an ancient peach tree sprouts a solitary piece of fruit that keeps growing…and growing…and growing. Through the magic of spells and potions, one thing leads to another, and eventually James finds himself sailing across the North Atlantic aboard the giant peach in the company of anthropomorphic insects who become for him an extended family.

The Advocate was given a special preview of the musical during last night’s dress rehearsal.

When the curtains go up one is struck first by the outstanding set design, which is simple yet functional and inspiring. The giant, hollowed-out peach – which can surely be thought of as one of the main characters, so central is it to the tale – towers over centre stage. At stage right is the grotesque gothic house belonging to the vile aunts, while at stage left is the gnarly old peach tree. Liberal quantities of spray foam were used to create very convincing bark on both tree and peach stem; a variety of realistic props and puppets round out the visual effects before the audience.

Of course, an otherwise splendid set is nothing unless brought to life. In this regard, Alana Collver’s choreography does not disappoint, and audiences can expect a variety of high-energy numbers that will leave smiles on their faces. Costumes, developed under the creative direction of Jen Simpson, more than succeed in conveying the look and feel of postwar, working-class Britain.

Bringing all of these elements together is an amazing, 31-person cast made up of seasoned performers as well as a few new faces. Matthew Avery, Paul Marshall, Carol Pypker, Janeel Quibell, and Rhys Warren round out the crew of lovable (if occasionally cynical) insects who accompany James on his journey. Elora Powell and Meg Morrison draw out all the stops in their portrayal of bullying Aunts Spiker and Sponge, respectively – villainous, yet mercifully comical. Laurie Joliecouer and Joey Stewart, meanwhile, take on supporting roles as the orphanage nurse and a reporter. Backing everyone up in song is a talented ensemble of local youth.

In the spotlight as James Henry Trotter is Rory O’Neill. “When the set and costumes came, it was really magical,” O’Neill tells the Advocate, of the days leading up to the big night. “This [musical] is all about family,” she says, when asked what about James will resonate with the audience.

Co-star Sydney Harwood-Jones, cast as Ladahlord – a mysterious character who narrates the show and dispenses pearls of wisdom to James – couldn’t agree more. “This is about finding people who truly accept who you are – whether your blood family or your chosen family,” she says. “This was a musical that I wasn’t familiar with prior to doing this show,” Harwood-Jones continues, “and that’s not something that I get to experience very often.”

Co-Director Beth Wilson is joined by daughters Ella and Abby, who are in the senior ensemble of ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ Photo: Jennifer Mabee.

For co-directors Beth Wilson and Andrew Archibald, these themes of family and belonging are paramount. “I loved the first rehearsal,” Wilson recalls. “We had a number of new families [joining us], and memories were made as everyone felt a sense of belonging. Close to 100 hours were involved in the production.” Paraphrasing a line from the musical, Archibald says “families are kind and families are loving – and we got to experience that in real time in putting this show together.” (It is no wonder, then, that stylized gears decorate much of the set: quite apart from conveying a fanciful, steampunk atmosphere, they offer us a powerful metaphor to ponder: gears, like families – and performers! –must work together to make life run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.)

Ultimately, James and the Giant Peach is a story about good triumphing over evil, about love of one’s neighbour triumphing over the love of money and of power. It is a tale that is especially worth repeating in our own time, where discord and dismay all too often seem to prevail.

Wilson says it best, and to her we give the last word: “I love the idea of whimsy and silliness and fantasy – and how these productions enable people to escape from the day-to-day.”

James and the Giant Peach opens at the FLATO Academy Theatre on Friday Nov. 24 at 7:00 p.m. Performances take place at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 25, with the final performance happening on Sunday Nov. 26 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit or call the box office at (705) 324-9111.

1 Comment

  1. Diane Engelstad says:

    What?! This is over the day before I get this news November 27 ??

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