Theatre review: Insects take the bite out of sweet Peach

Armstrong's Asparagus Theatre presents the fun, and rather wacky, James and the Giant Peach.

It’s always a treat when young imaginations are allowed to roam to far-off places. So when I took my six-year-old daughter to see Asparagus Community Theatre’s latest offering –– a rather juicy staging of Roald Dahl’s now 50-year-old story, James and the Giant Peach, I wondered how she would fare.

It is a rather trippy tale, after all, with an abused young boy who finds solace, adventure and some unusual friends inside a giant –– you guessed it –– stone fruit.

It makes you wonder what Dahl, like Lewis Carroll before him, was smoking at the time when came up with this fantastical idea.

What became Dahl’s second foray into children’s literature, after 1943’s The Gremlins, James and the Giant Peach would three years later be usurped by a poor, sweet little kid named Charlie, who wins a golden ticket to enter Willy Wonka’s candy factory.

And just so no one is confused, the narrator of James and the Giant Peach (played in Asparagus’ version by the engaging Sue Gairns) does reference Dahl’s later work.

When the giant peach falls off the tree, squashing everyone and everything in its way, it rolls right through a “famous chocolate factory, with the word WONKA on the side of the building.” That was the way Dahl wrote it in his 1961 book, just in case anyone was thinking of scolding Asparagus for getting their dates wrong.

James has similar themes to Charlie.

It is centered around a poor child, James Henry Trotter (played here by the sweet-faced Tim Harder), left orphaned in the first scene when his parents (Rory White and Mandy Penner) are run over by a rhinoceros. (This is done tactfully using a giant screen to project the image of the rhino, with accompanying sound effects.)

Left in care of his horribly gruesome Aunt Sponge (played to camp in full clown makeup and extra padding by the wonderful Susan Gagnon) and Aunt Spiker (the equally evil acting Joanne Feenstra in full-on Rocky Horror Picture Show wig), James  finds an escape from their abuse when he is approached by a mysterious old man (played by the rather young and spry Doug Fairweather) who offers him some magical gems.

Once planted, those gems turn into the peach, once again projected onto the screen, which grows bigger and bigger until the overly ripened fruit, which James now finds himself inside with some special critters, drops off and keeps on rolling right over the famous white cliffs of Dover into the English Channel.

Think of James’ companions as those from Animal Farm except they are insects, and luckily these bugs all get along with each other for the most part. The insects are played by some talented young actors  donning some ingenious costumes.

Standing out right from the get-go is Shaleen Toney, who sounds and looks like Mario from the video game Super Mario Brothers. With her red cap, moustache, and what sounds like either a New “Joisey” or New Yorker accent, if you can tell the difference, Toney wears a costume of 18 little legs with booties on them. (It was my daughter who counted them, although in the story, the Centipede claims to have 100 little legs, but the Earthworm points out that he actually has only 42.)

But it doesn’t really matter as Toney as the Centipede sings and dances to the delight of all.

Speaking of scene stealing, the Earthworm (Penner doing double duty here) shimmies, whines and sighs just as you would imagine both a blind and legless insect would. She is hilarious.

So are all the other little creatures who help James find his way across the ocean, and up through the sky (via another ingenious trick involving lines of string), where they are met by a number of curious onlookers, including the strange dancing cloud people.

With the talented cast, simple set and delightful music, accompanied on guitar by music director Rory White, this really is a play you can take the whole family to. The youngsters may not get all the weird things that go on, but they’ll definitely be able to sink their teeth into this fun, silly adventure.

Asparagus Theatre continues its run of James and the Giant Peach at Centennial Auditorium in Armstrong tonight through Saturday. Shows take place at 8 p.m., with a matinée Saturday at 2 p.m. Call or visit The Guy Next Door (250-546-0950) for tickets.