Staging Roald Dahl’s peach of a tale

James and the Gaint Peach

James and the Gaint Peach - Credit: Archant

He's one of Britain's brightest choreographers with a wide range of work from Kiss Of The Spider Woman to David Essex's All The Fun Of The Fair. Drew McOnie tells JOHN BULTITUDE about helping to bring one of Britain's best-loved children's books to the stage.

Trying to identify a theatrical production which has the McOnie stamp is not easy. He is undoubtedly one of Britain's most versatile choreographers, a tag he is very happy to have.

This latest project sees him renew his creative partnership with top director Nikolai Foster to bring the classic tale of James and the Giant Peach to the stage.

The Birmingham Stage Company, who have a strong track record of family friendly productions, are back at Norwich Theatre Royal this weekend with the Roald Dahl favourite, adapted for the stage by the ever reliable David Wood, who has previously worked on much loved Dahl adaptations The BFG and The Witches.

The book tells the story of James, a lonely young boy who lives with nasty Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Then one day he meets a mystical old man who gives him a bag that contains the strongest magic the world has ever known. When James accidentally spills the bag near an old peach tree, the most incredible things start to happen – and James's adventure has just begun.

Choreographing and bringing to life on stage such a well known tale was just another day at the office for McOnie, whose thorough approach to taking on new projects is matched by a huge enthusiasm for any show he works on.

And this one was not the easiest.

Most Read

Not only did he have to maintain the feel of a story which is held with great affection by generations of keen readers, but he also has to convey the look and movements of the characters which is a particular challenge when lots of them are wild creatures.

'You are trying to transport the audience to a place where they believe the cast of humans are actually insects and creatures. It has a very physical approach with lots of movement and direction,' he says.

'The performers also have to play instruments as well, so we needed to make sure those were very much part of their bodies. It is very much about physical movement and we needed to make it look very natural.'

So where on Earth does McOnie start when it comes to helping a human performer transform themselves into a grasshopper, centipede or spider for the show?

'We started with physical workshops. It is about establishing the idea of the shape of the insects. One of the characters is an earthworm which is about as different from a human as you can get. We would spend a day or so thinking about the structure of the insect before we even started working on the script.

'We have also got a grasshopper which stands on its hind legs so again, you need to think about how it works, how it would complete everyday actions and things like picking something up. We do all this work before we start work on the staging of the piece.'

This organic approach to the production continued through the rehearsal process, with composer Grant Olding working on the melodies and music during rehearsals.

'It was a fascinating and very exciting process to work through.'

It is the latest in a long line for shows for McOnie, who began showing an interest in dance at the age of six when he started taking classes in disco and freestyle.

He then started appearing in shows, playing the little boy in The Snowman's original West End run and a video release.

At the age of 11 he was offered a scholarship to Tring Park School and while in training, created his very first piece entitled Monochrome Suite with the help of a choreography scholarship from the National Youth Ballet Company.

McOnie later went on to choreograph The Old Man Of Lochnagar, based on HRH Prince Charles's book, for the same company and was mentored by the highly-acclaimed choreographer Matthew Bourne, who McOnie still credits as one of his great creative inspirations.

After understudying in Cats on a German tour while in his late teens, he ended up auditioning for Bourne, appearing in the likes of Edward Scissorhands, The Nutcracker and Dorian Grey – projects which also saw him tread the boards at Norwich Theatre Royal.

Unlike many who enter the performing arts world, creating dance was something he wanted to do from a very young age.

McOnie recalls: 'I had always wanted to be a choreographer. When I was at school, I was always wanting to put on shows. I couldn't understand with football why they needed two sets of goalposts. I just thought they could use one of them and I could put a show on in the other.'

Since then, he has embarked on a wide range of different projects. The last time his work was seen at the Theatre Royal was the choreography for the hugely successful musical All The Fun Of The Fair.

The show, which boasted sets conceived and built by the Gorleston-based 3D Creations, featured the music of David Essex, who also starred in the show and was heavily involved in the production's creative process.

'There again, I did something that was different. It was lots of fun. The music was fantastic and it was really lovely to be working with David. On the first night, I was very nervous because you are handing over the show to the cast but the legend that is David just completely took over.

'He was just so popular. You just could not get through the stage door. I was there with my parents on the first night and it took us 15 minutes to leave the theatre.'

So, with James and the Giant Peach now out on tour, what's next for McOnie? As we chat, he reveals his next project – a brand new production of the musical classic West Side Story.

'It's an iconic piece of musical theatre and a great opportunity to do this piece with a cast who are actually age-specific to the characters.

'I'm working once again with the director Nikolai Foster and it will be performed in Manchester with the National Youth Music Theatre so we are currently looking for children aged between 15 and 23 all over the country.'

Engaging and working with young people is something McOnie is particularly passionate about.

'We have got so many challenges in theatre as there are now so many different media to connect with. As a young choreographer, I feel I need to create work that is relevant to young people. That is why it is very important to do work like West Side Story.

'I'm also working very hard to create dance pieces that are relevant to young people and work that they want to see. I do not want to get to my 60s and 70s and find I'm only creating pieces for a virtual audience.'

Somehow, for someone with so much enthusiasm, passion and hunger for creating memorable theatrical moments, that is unlikely to be the case.

t James and The Giant Peach, Norwich Theatre Royal, March 15, 10.30am, 1.30pm/March 16, 10.30am, 2.30pm and 7pm/ March 17, 11am, £16-£5.50, under-18s £12-£5.50, 01603 630000,