In a heartwarming comeback performance by Haslemere Thespians’ young actors’ company The Next Generation, James and the Giant Peach brought Roald Dahl’s timeless tale of courage, friendship, and acceptance to life, writes Howard Bicknell...

James and the Giant Peach was the perfect comeback show for The Next Generation after the non-performing years belonging to Covid.

It’s a simple, nonsensical story about courage and friendship and the importance of acceptance of differences and working together. Written by Roald Dahl in 1961, the objectives are still as robust and important today as they were more than 60 years ago. 

The story rotates around young James Trotter, a lonely seven-year-old boy who escapes a life of sadness and abuse when he takes a journey aboard an enormous magical peach.

Here, within the core of the fleshy fruit, live five life-sized insects,  who quickly become James’ confidants and cohabitants of the stone fruit.

We learn James was left an orphan after both parents were eaten by a rhinoceros at the age of four, whereupon he went to live with his formidable, sadistic elderly aunts for three years.  

Aunt Spiker is cold and vain – and Liv Sellers really had a lot of fun portraying this role – while her counterpart, the gluttonous and selfish Aunt Sponge, was also confidently played by Connie Holt. Both girls really brought out the cantankerous and cranky nature of their characters and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them playing Cinderella’s sisters somewhere in the future.

Three years later, James meets a mysterious lady in his aunt’s garden who gives him a bag of crocodile tongues. But unfortunately he stumbles and spills the contents near a barren peach tree, which in turn produces a single peach which soon grows to the size of a house.  

James discovers a hole in the peach and curiosity leads him to crawl in and land in the pit of the peach to find Grasshopper, a wise musician, expertly animated by Peter Salt. It’s not easy to be an old soul when you’re in your athletic teen years – and to sound worn and learned too. Superb! 

Ladybug was a kind and supportive friend to James. She realises James’ natural ability to lead and builds his confidence by encouraging the others to ask James questions. Amelie Baseley brought Ladybug to life and had just the right amount of empathy and care mixed with sense and purpose. Delightful!

Poor blind Earthworm. His negative and pessimistic attitude came across so lethargically by Christopher Seymour. His whole attire and his fantastic costume screamed sluggish and behind those glasses I’m sure Christopher had a whale of a time. Terrific!

The formidable Spider is actually a kind and helpful friend to James. She teaches him about the importance of recognising and overcoming prejudice by sharing stories of her experiences as an arachnid who is generally feared by the majority of people. Bea Jennings really made Spider her own by spinning her own interpretation of the character with delightful diction. Inspiring!

The comedy character came with Centipede. Ollie McLaren obviously relished this role using humour and sarcasm to entertain his fellow flatmates. Centipede had the unenviable task of wearing 50 pairs of boots and loved his banter with Earthworm. Comedic!

Amelia Spears, Cressie Fairhurst and Izzi Scott provided us with the plot and skilfully and beautifully narrated their way through the script. Their diction was so clear and while slightly rushed, they were well rehearsed and tripped off each other’s words very professionally. Trilogical!

There were plenty of smaller roles in this fine cast and multi-tasking was not an issue for Annie Mosses, Chloe Marston, Mariana Maia, Hannah Chant and Amelie van Staden who played many roles and made the cast look a lot bigger than it actually was. All who appeared as puppeteers should be congratulated for their skills.

The costumes were fantastic, particularly for the insects, and a lot of thought and detail had gone into these. They looked superb and the actors were all very comfortable with their new skins. Hats off to the wardrobe team.

A simple but very effective set was designed by Ray Noad and created by Ray, Graham Perrett,  Simon Manville and team, and the interior of the peach and the sheer size of it was nothing short of brilliant. While most of Act 2 was set on stage, the earlier half was on the floor and, with restricted viewing from the seats, a lot of the magic was lost on the audience, which was a real shame but couldn’t be helped in this setting.

The show-stealing character was James himself. The very natural and incandescent Jasper Hawes was perfect as James – a very talented young man who gave so much diversification to his character.  He was a pure joy to watch and so professional. Watch this space!

Well done Sally Waghorn, I can totally understand why you chose this show to direct and direct it you did. Admirable!

Well done to everyone involved with The Next Generation, however you were involved. I am already looking forward to 2024.

Thank you for inviting me.

The Next Generation’s performances of James and the Giant Peach took place on June 30 and July 1 at The Royal Senior School in Haslemere. Story by Roald Dahl and adapted for the stage by David Wood. Music composed by Chris Snelling.