Like fellow British author Charles Dickens before him, Roald Dahl had a way of turning poor, young, misaligned youth into everyday heroes.
Best known for his 1964 story, and subsequent film adaptations, about a boy named Charlie who wins a golden ticket to enter the wacky world of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Dahl’s other children’s fantasy, James and the Giant Peach, was actually written three years earlier.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in print this year, the tale of James comes to life on the local stage when Asparagus Community Theatre presents it in Armstrong starting this week.
Made into a musical film in 1996, which used both live and stop-motion animation, James and the Giant Peach has a deep message, said Paul Kirkwood-Hackett, who is directing the play for Asparagus.
“It’s about a boy going through trauma who comes out well adjusted,” he said. “It speaks to the hero in young people and deals with prejudice. In the book, James doesn’t judge anybody, not his aunts or the insects he encounters.”
For those who have not read the classic novel, the story follows an escaped rhinoceros from the London Zoo who has eaten James’ parents. Orphaned, James is packed off to live with his two really horrible aunts, Sponge and Spiker, until he finds himself inside a giant peach, where he encounters a group of insects. They soon become a family and set off on grand adventures together, overcoming obstacles along the way.
“He has his comeuppance in that he suffers through mistreatment at the beginning, but comes out at the other end. It’s very Dickensian,” said Kirkwood-Hackett. “It also translates well today. Young people will enjoy the story as it is filled with fantasy and adventure.”
The Asparagus design team, led by Alf Bennett, have lots of special effects, costumes and lighting in store. The peach, made by head carpenter Mark Levey, is practically the same size as the stage and is shaped as a horseshoe with four different levels.
“It’s quite an endeavour, but I’m pretty happy with where we’re at,” said Kirkwood-Hackett, adding George Young and George Bensmiller have designed the lighting and sound respectively.
With narrator Sue Gairns guiding the audience through the story, the cast is made up of all ages, from young James (Len Wood Middle School student Tim Harder) to the Old Man (played by the not-so-elderly Doug Fairweather) who gives James the magic seeds that become the giant peach.
Camping it up to play the two nasty aunts are longtime Asparagus volunteers/actors Susan Gagnon as Sponge and Joanne Feenstra as Spiker.
And then there’s the insects.
Donning the colourful costumes, and in some cases the many spindly legs, are Mandy Penner as Earthworm, Shaleen Toney as Centipede, Jacob Thiessen as Grasshopper, Sarah Holman as Silkworm, Michael Gairns as Spider, Lauren Brown as Ladybug and Clare Thiessen as Glowworm.
Music director Rory White, and open mic host extraordinaire, is also playing his guitar throughout the show.
Asparagus is dedicating its Saturday, Dec. 3 performance to the four young Armstrong residents who have died under tragic circumstances over the last few months.
“We hope this play is uplifting. It’s been a sad couple of months with young people losing their lives. It has really affected us all, so we hope the community comes together for this family-oriented play,” said Kirkwood-Hackett.
James and the Giant Peach runs Wednesday to Saturday, Nov. 30 to Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. at Centennial Auditorium, 3120 Pleasant Valley Rd., Armstrong. Tickets, $15/adult $12.50 senior/student, $8/child 12 and under, are available at The Guy Next Door, 3450a Okanagan St. Call 250-546-0950.