Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Summer Youth Project) at the Orchard Theatre

For a second year running, the Dartford Summer Youth Project has selected a show that’s new to me. Following last year’s brilliant Bugsy Malone, this summer they’re back with Little Shop of Horrors, the classic horror comedy about a man-eating plant by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in a production that brings together a community cast of young Dartfordians aged between 9 and 19. The story follows shop boy Seymour, who finds himself in possession of a “strange and interesting” plant that makes him rich and famous – but at what cost…?

The show might be considered a bit gory for kids (it does, after all, involve an abusive relationship, murder, dismemberment and a psychotic dentist) and it had to be sanitised a little for this production. But the horror is all very tongue-in-cheek, and the jokes are pitched so that a lot of the humour can be appreciated by adults whilst sailing over younger heads. There’s also a valuable lesson for all ages to be taken from this cautionary tale about the dangers of putting personal gain ahead of moral values.

I have two main conclusions from this evening’s opening night performance. First, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on my plants from now on. Second, director Sean Hollands and the rest of the SYP team have pulled off another triumph. After just two weeks of rehearsal, Little Shop of Horrors is slick, professional and features several young performers who could easily give seasoned stars a serious run for their money.

This is particularly true of the principal leads – Ethan Oswald, Olivia Hallett, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens – who all look and sound like they’ve been on stage for years. Each of them has at least one big musical number, and absolutely nails it, with my personal highlights Mikey Stevens’ hilariously deranged Dentist! and Olivia Hallett and Ethan Oswald’s gorgeous duet, Suddenly Seymour. There’s also some brilliant voice acting from Thomas Bassett, the voice of Audrey II, who succeeds in giving us the shivers without once appearing on stage, and impressive vocals from the chorus of glamorous Ronettes.

The principals lead a huge company of over 100 children, all of whom get to be involved throughout the show as they pop up frequently in aisles and on balconies performing dance routines choreographed by Mel Simpson. This sometimes messes with the audience’s view of the stage a bit – but it’s hard to mind that too much when the children are obviously having such an amazing time.

And that’s the genius of the Summer Youth Project. Yes, this is a fantastic production that showcases some outstanding young talent, but more importantly it’s giving each and every one of the children on stage an experience they’ll never forget – the chance to be part of a production led by a professional creative team, performing for a huge audience of friends, family and strangers in a proper theatre. But it’s not just a treat for the kids; their enthusiasm and delight is infectious, and you don’t have to be a parent or even know anyone involved to feel proud of what they’ve all achieved, or to appreciate the hard work they’ve put in. This is something that’s easy to take for granted when watching a professional company for whom it’s just another day at work, and sometimes we need a reminder of why we go to the theatre in the first place: to be entertained. And on that score, Little Shop of Horrors more than delivers.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 12th August.

Review: All Our Children, Jermyn Street Theatre

It was never going to be an easy play to watch. Stephen Unwin makes his debut as a playwright with All Our Children, a chilling expose of the brutal programme that saw Nazi Germany send thousands of disabled children to their deaths, ostensibly to ease the financial burden on the state. Over the course of one day, we see the situation through the eyes of five characters, each with a different perspective – and leave disturbed and shaken by the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

The subject matter sounds grim, and it is – not for what we see but rather what we don’t. There are no children in the play; we never leave the comfortable office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), chief paediatrician at a children’s clinic near Cologne. But we come to know them, through the pain of a mother who’s lost her son, the remorse of another who’s realised the patients in the clinic are, after all, “just children”, and through the cowardly attempts of a man who once swore to do no harm to justify sending his innocent charges to be murdered.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

It’s this, more than anything, that really sends a chill down the spine. Franz is an experienced and compassionate doctor; he’s often funny, has an obvious affection for his devoted maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), and dislikes the odious SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) who’s there to make sure he toes the line and meets his grotesque quotas. Franz could be quite a likeable guy, in fact, but for the cold, clinical way he reels off the official justifications for his actions. Unlike the fanatical Schmidt, who simply hates the clinic’s patients and everything they represent, it’s obvious from the doctor’s hangdog expression, late night drinking and constant efforts to hide the truth from Martha that he knows full well what he’s doing is wrong. The arrival of David Yelland’s Bishop von Galen (a real historical figure, whose public opposition to the programme was key to its eventual abolition) could hardly be more timely, and his dignified rage in the face of Franz’s cowardice speaks for all of us.

The play is a very personal project for Stephen Unwin, who also directs, and there’s no doubting the passion or anger behind every word – but he resists the urge to preach his views, instead presenting a sensitive and balanced debate from which ultimately it’s the compassionate voices that cry out the loudest. While the men each get their turn to argue the intellectual and moral points of the debate, the two women – both mothers – represent the emotional heart of the play, and it’s their scenes that really drive home the horror of what’s happening. Lucy Speed’s Frau Pabst breaks our hearts as she describes her son with none of the eloquence of the men but a great deal more feeling; she knows Stefan will never have a job or pay tax – but he’s her son and she can’t bring herself to share the view that his is a life not worth living. And Martha’s softly spoken realisation that the patients she used to feel so sorry for are no different to her own three “normal” children has just as much impact as the bishop’s outrage.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

A few slightly artificial sound effects aside, All Our Children is an incredibly effective and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a warning from history that reminds us of our continuing duty to look out for those who need our help, particularly at a time of government cuts and growing intolerance. We may not be in Nazi Germany, and it may not be 1941 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learnt, or battles to be fought.

All Our Children is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd June.

Review: Suddenly…! at the Cockpit Theatre

I always imagine it must be pretty terrifying making theatre for children. Grownups will (usually) at least pretend to look interested, but with kids there’s no such guarantee. Fortunately, Really Big Pants Theatre’s Suddenly…! had its young audience at the Cockpit Theatre spellbound from the start… and the adults had a pretty good time too.

Photo credit: ID Photography

Suddenly…! takes elements from different fairy tales and mixes them together in an original, exciting and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship. Red Riding Hood, Mr Wolf, a faulty genie and a wicked stepmother all make an appearance, as a young boy’s well-intentioned attempt to get his dad’s attention goes horribly wrong, and we set out on a quest to recover three special items and help Grandma save the day.

The show’s written and performed by Really Big Pants’ Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, who play all the characters with the help of assorted interesting headwear and a variety of accents, not to mention boundless enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment. It’s thoroughly entertaining, but there’s also a strong educational element to the show; besides its core message about how friendship and spending quality time together are more important than having lots of stuff, there are also brief lessons in history and science, a bit of feminism (no princesses waiting around for a man to rescue them in this story, thank you very much), and – to my delight – a tribute to the late great Roald Dahl. Afterwards, children can take away worksheets and even enter a story-writing competition for a chance to see their work published in the Ham & High newspaper.

Not surprisingly for a kids’ show, audience participation is encouraged, but in a gentle, positive way that means nobody feels singled out or uncomfortable – and it’s a testament to how enjoyable it all is that everyone’s more than happy to join in (yes, even I was up on my feet doing the genie dance). Judging by the enthusiasm of our relatively small audience at the Cockpit, I can only imagine the noise levels when the show’s performed in a school hall full of excited children.

Photo credit: ID Photography

The show is also very funny, and like any good kids’ story contains jokes for both children and adults, so everyone stays engaged and entertained throughout. But the humour isn’t the only thing that works on two levels – as the story itself points out, it’s not just children who need to be reminded that material possessions aren’t everything, or that we should put down our phones once in a while and spend some time with the people we care about.

Suddenly…! is a great story and a lot of fun for the whole family, performed with an infectious energy and enthusiasm by two ladies who clearly love what they do. It’s educational but never boring, and enjoyably silly without being patronising. And because Really Big Pants encourage their audience – young and old – to go away and write their own stories, the fun doesn’t have to stop when the show ends.

Really Big Pants Theatre perform at theatres, festivals, schools and community venues. For all upcoming dates or to book them for an event, visit reallybigpants.co.uk or follow them on Twitter @reallybptheatre.

Interview: Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, Really Big Pants Theatre

“There’s just the two of us, and we came together after years of knowing each other as friends, then working together in a sketch show and various acting jobs. And then we thought, shall we bring all our vast experience together – of writing, performing, working with children (and having them) – and see what happens? And we decided our shows would all have themes that we both cared deeply about: literacy, the environment and a healthy body image.” 

Joe Bromley and Willow Nash are co-founders of the Really Big Pants Theatre Company, creating shows that celebrate and encourage literacy for primary age children. “We encourage children to learn to read through our love of stories. A character in SUDDENLY…! doesn’t want to do his story homework at the beginning because he thinks he’s no good at them, but by the end he’s got a great idea for a story and can’t wait to write it down. We believe storytelling is an excellent gateway into encouraging reluctant children to learn to read.” But the shows aren’t just fun for kids: “We’ve had wonderful feedback from parents and teachers alike, telling us how much they enjoyed the show alongside the children, and appreciated the morals.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

They’re performing their latest show, SUDDENLY…! at schools, arts centres and community venues, and describe it as “a story within a bedtime story, twisting traditional tales and featuring fairy tale characters as you’ve never seen them before. It’s an interactive adventure full of excitement, danger, friendship, forestry and the perils of bad manners and too much stuff!”

SUDDENLY…! has also been adapted as an audiobook, recorded by Joe and Willow, and described by the Kentish Towner as “non-stop adventure featuring delicious wordplay”. The ladies explain, “We were approached by a publisher and jumped at the opportunity to expand the world of the show, where it’s just the two of us playing all the characters with minimal props, and to bring in more descriptive language as well as the original dialogue. Audiobooks are becoming increasingly popular as a great way to enjoy a story as a whole family, and are inclusive for children who are struggling to read. We’re writing two new adventures for Grandma and Red, and hoping there will be print versions soon too.”

suddenly-cover
Illustration by Rosie Alabaster

With World Book Day coming up next week, Joe and Willow are looking forward to taking SUDDENLY…! into three primary schools to celebrate. “We love introducing children to the power of theatre and for some of them in schools, this will be the only chance they get to see a play. So our priority is making sure we provide great entertainment. And then we would like them to think about the messages in the play, such as being kind, trying your best, and friendship being more important than having lots of stuff. But we definitely want them to say afterwards, ‘I’m now going to read/write/make up my own story!’ and many of them do tell us that on their way out! We were beyond proud when, after seeing our show at his school, an eight-year-old boy went home and wrote his own book – complete with illustrations of us! – where our characters met the characters from the book he’d been reading. How brilliant!

“Another great moment was when we performed in a library for the Summer Reading Challenge, and a mother had brought her reluctant son to see the show, telling us he was not a keen reader at all. We kept an eye on him throughout – he started off with defensive body language, sitting slightly apart from the other children, but we watched him grow and grow in enthusiasm and join in and really get involved, and at the end he came up to us and said he wanted to take a book out of the library and try and read it. Hugely rewarding. We also love it when children in schools line up to fist bump us before heading off to their classrooms and ask us when we’ll be back! So many highlights, and always a joy to be on stage and see a sea of happy faces.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

And where do pants fit into all this?! “During rehearsals for PLUNDERED!, our show about the environment, we were working on a scene where our characters have to disguise themselves as pirates, and we decided they would rummage through a trunk of old clothes and find some really big pants. Hysteria kicked in and we rolled about laughing, like the true professionals we are. After months of formal deliberation over what we should call the company, the name finally came from that daft moment. But we use the pants in all our shows in one way or another – look out for them!”

To find out about future performances of SUDDENLY…! or to book Really Big Pants for a show, visit their website: www.reallybigpants.co.uk

The SUDDENLY…! audiobook is available from Waterstones and The Owl Bookshop.

Interview: Danyah Miller, Why The Whales Came

“I love how this story makes us think about others, about how we view difference and how sometimes we misjudge when we’re unsure or afraid,” says Danyah Miller, award-winning performer and storyteller, of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came. “I would hope that the audience take away a sense of hope and joy and perhaps the feeling that one person can make a huge difference.”

Why the Whales Came sees Danyah again teaming up with director Dani Parr and designer Kate Bunce, following the success of their collaboration on I Believe in Unicorns – also by Michael Morpurgo. “I love working on Michael’s stories because they’re multi-layered and really gripping tales, based in truth,” she explains. “It is often said that he doesn’t patronise children in anyway and takes them, and us, to dark places and back again. I like that. I find his stories full of surprises, sadness, hope, joy. Above all, they’re about ordinary folk often doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Their admiration is mutual; Michael Morpurgo describes Danyah as a “storytelling phenomenon”. What inspired her to take up performing as a career? “As long as I can remember I wanted to be a performer and I certainly ‘entertained’ my way through childhood! I have always been very chatty and there’s nothing I like more than spinning a good tale. How I became a storyteller is a long story…

“I suspect that the difference between being an actor and being a storyteller is a very fine line. As a storyteller we ‘hold’ a central point, as ourselves, and from there paint the world of the story, become characters, weave in and out of landscapes and people, but we always come back to the centre, as ourselves. As an actor we become another character and remain in that role (although of course sometimes actors are asked to multi-role too). Perhaps it’s possible to be both, I suspect that the best in our profession are both actor and storyteller. Stories are everywhere, aren’t they? We are storytelling beings and it’s what makes us human…”

Why the Whales Came is the story of Gracie and Daniel, who’ve been forbidden to go near the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Birdman – but then they find a message in the sand that suggests all is not as it seems. When they get stranded on the Birdman’s tiny island, the two friends begin to unravel his secrets…

Although it’s based on a children’s book, Danyah believes the show has something for everyone: “This is definitely not a show just for children – it is a ‘family’ show in the widest possible sense. We have people of all ages from 7 to 107 enjoying the show whether or not they have children with them. Good stories, good theatre can appeal across the ages and we hope that our show does this.

“I enjoy sharing the show with children who’ve never been to a theatre before or experienced any kind of live show – as an audience they are really responsive and truthful and often give me insightful feedback. I also really enjoy it when families of children, parents and grandparents come to see the show and all of them have been moved by the show in different ways.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

As a solo performer, Danyah may be the only person on stage, but she’s far from lonely. “I really like performing solo, although I feel as if I have a collaborator when I perform on the set, in the ‘world’ that the creative team have produced… the set, projection, lighting and sound,” she says. “I also like to be able to see the audience, we have the lights set so I can do this – so I’m not alone. I think of what I do as a delicious triangle between the story, myself and the audience – every show is different because of this, and I’m never lonely. I do have to make sure that I’m always fit and ready though, as it’s down to me being on top form for every show!”

Why the Whales Came is at Ovalhouse until 31st December, with other one-off performances scheduled for early 2017.