James And The Giant Peach, Octagon, Bolton <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar --> / Talking To Space Hoppers, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield

Animation adds bite to Peach
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The Independent Culture

Bolton's Octagon has quite a reputation for its colourful presentations of Roald Dahl stories, and Sarah Esdaile's beguiling production of James and the Giant Peach is no less "dahlicious" than the company's past efforts.

Starting at the end, with James popping out of a gnarled peach stone, the squealing, young audience are whisked back to the beginning, where James' parents are chased and devoured by a rampaging rhinoceros. Orphaned, he ends up with two grotesque caricatures of aunts - puddingy Sponge and barbed Spiker - forced to skivvy in miserable loneliness. When a mysterious peach appears, James escapes, taking off in the airborne fruit to the Big Apple. His new mates - a gang of bugs - are as characterful in their creepy crawly roles as they are adept on their various musical instruments.

The aunts, Emma Manton and Elizabeth Marsh, continue their entertaining double act in different guises now as, respectively, Ladybird and Miss Spider, with Thomas Padden particularly touching as the Old Green Grasshopper/violinist and Matthew Woodyatt a splendidly lugubrious blind (Welsh) Earthworm.

Jon Bausor's simple yet effective designs put the peach stage-centre; the fruit's golden outer skin evolving seamlessly out of the circular, wooden acting space. The costumes are delightful: Miss Spider's extra legs lolling alongside her arms;Centipede's countless pairs of tiny shoes sewn inside his coat.

But the show is almost stolen by Mervyn Miller's puppets and animation. The dissolving of the peach stone into the storming rhino is a cunning idea, while the cartoonish whale, model helicopters, seagulls and ship add an element of fun. The overhead projections provide yet another dimension.

Simon Slater's jazzy score, while a touch derivative, is irresistible in the jam session among the bugs when James first encounters them. The words of the songs are sometimes lost and the underscored dialogue lacks clarity but Esdaile's sympathetic take on David Wood's adaptation of this magical story, especially the flying peach, holds the audience spellbound.

You should never share a stage with children or animals, but what about that 1970s oval icon, produced from tough, orange vinyl, with two horns on the top and squidgy black animal-like features printed on the front? In its first production, new theatre group The Gorgeous North has gone for broke, casting George, a northern space hopper, as best supporting actor to Bev. She likes walking round Tesco with no pants on.

Talking to Space Hoppers is a perceptive monologue, co-written by Angela Truby and Joanna Swain. Their creative marriage broadly celebrates their northern background; this new script revelling in pitch-perfect use of local, female and contemporary references for wry, comic effect.

Sympathetically directed by Karen Simpson, it's set in the present but with a nostalgia for the fast-vanishing world of Bev's youth. Music by such emblematic groups as Duran Duran scream 1980s while separating and setting the scenes.

Swain plays Bev, a Sheffield lass of 39 whose marriage to Pete is falling apart. His supposedly upwardly mobile move from journalism (Sheffield Star) to the world of marketing technology has driven a wedge between them. Bev can't cook but loves sex; "a whore in the kitchen and a cook in the bedroom" as one of her pals described her. But Pete has been swallowed up by his new job and, it turns out, a fellow marketeer. Instead of joining the "floral-skirted" wives in a cookery class, Bev enrols on a stand-up comedy class.

Not only does this allow the hour-and-a-quarter long virtuoso piece to be intercut with her new stand-up act, it also re-introduces Bev to the forgotten pleasure of sex - with a boy who's "been on this planet less time than she's been doing her roots".

Swain captures Bev's vulnerability as well as her feistiness. In its understatement, acute observation and knowing irony, pointing up the insecurities and preoccupations of a woman who fears life is passing her by at an ever increasing speed, Talking to Space Hoppers is penetrating and funny, as well as rather poignant.

'James and the Giant Peach' runs until 20 January (01204 520661); 'Talking to Space Hoppers' runs until Saturday (0114-249 6000)

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