Review: The Wizard of Oz at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika and Raphael Cutts

Having very recently moved to Dartford I had not heard of the Summer Youth Project, so it was with great excitement I came to watch this production of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz with my 8 year old son Raphael, who himself enjoys acting and dancing. (Mental note to myself to diarise 2019 audition dates!)

This is the ninth year that this project has been running and has been the biggest to date, with over 350 signing up. Talented young people, aged between 9 and 19, go from script to stage in just 2 weeks – which is unbelievable! Over 100 kids were chosen to learn, rehearse and perform RSC’s version of The Wizard of Oz to proud relatives, friends and the local community.

I probably don’t need to go too much into the storyline to readers – the tale of Dorothy and Toto, following their adventures from Kansas to the Land of Oz with their travelling companions – the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the cowardly Lion. The audience is transported to a land of witches, wizards and Munchkins as we follow their path along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. It is a great choice for a production as it is loved and known by adults (in the interval I noticed an adult “Dorothy” complete with her ruby shoes) and kids alike – and especially so for a youth performance as it has so many singing, dancing and acting opportunities within the storyline.

As the curtain opened for the first scene, the show stealer was unexpected. The whole audience gasped and there was a collective “awwwwwww” as in trotted little Toto. I hadn’t expected a live animal on the stage to be honest, and I don’t think the rest of the audience had either – and not one fault throughout the whole performance! He was definitely the star… although sometimes he perhaps received too much attention from the audience and distracted us from the rest of the action.

Holly Radford as Dorothy was a fantastic choice – a great voice, confident and charming. She sang Somewhere over the Rainbow like she had been singing it for years and I could hear my son humming along next to me as I was myself transported to another land!

As for Dorothy’s faithful companions, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man – Mason Mote, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens did a great job of keeping the audience entertained with lots of fun jokes and antics, especially from the lion, who had got a perm specially! The Wicked Witch, played by Maddie Broadbridge was evil enough to be convincing without scaring the younger audience members too much.

The scenery was simple but effective and the lighting, especially during the tornado scene, was atmospheric and added to the mood and tensions. We did feel at times, though, that the spotlights were too bright and maybe needed some adjustments.

Now over to the main stars of the show – the children. We saw them singing and dancing choruses, and singing solos. They were singing in the aisles, they were singing in the balconies, they were singing on the stage. They were tap-dancing, performing the Charleston, dancing ballet and modern. Some had lines and some had jokes to say. They were trees, they were Munchkins, they were crows, they were monkeys, they were poppies in the field. My son’s favourite was the acrobatic monkey who could do hands-free somersaults in the air!

You could say the children WERE the show – from the scenery to the animals to the characters. And what a talented group. You could really see how each and every one of them was thoroughly enjoying themselves and that is what made the show so special. I noticed even as the show was ending some of the children were continuing to perform and dance with each other impromptu, because they didn’t want it to end. My son commented that there were boys performing, which was good to see. Although talking of gender balance, a comment I would make is that the BME community was underrepresented both in the show and the audience, and it would be great to see this begin to change next summer for their 10th anniversary year.

I can’t end without mentioning the director David Maun, who did an amazing job, and choreographer Debbie Smith and musical director Steven Trill, who must have worked so hard with the children and produced such a successful show. The scenery and music and choreography made the performance what it was and much credit to them for turning this around in 2 weeks!

I definitely wait with anticipation for the show next year and I know my son feels the same… it has made him enthusiastic enough to want to audition for it and he rated the show 9¾ out of 10! Many thanks to the Summer Youth Project for a wonderful evening and well done for all of your hard work – it definitely shows!

The Summer Youth Project’s production of The Wizard of Oz continues at the Orchard Theatre until 18th August.

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: Bugsy Malone at the Orchard Theatre

The Summer Youth Project at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre brings together a 100-strong community cast of young people aged between 9 and 19, who’ve had just two weeks to rehearse a show before taking to the stage and performing for friends, family and the general public.

Now in its seventh year, previous SYP productions have included Fame, Annie and Footloose, with last year’s Oliver! described by reviewers as “West End standard”. Does this year’s choice, Bugsy Malone, live up to its predecessor? You’d better believe it.

Bugsy Malone

Bugsy is a great pick for a project of this kind, because besides being a family-friendly show with some irresistible tunes, it also has a huge amount of speaking parts; the list of characters in the programme is a page long. As a result, the Dartford audience gets to enjoy a true showcase of the vast amount of talent to be found on our doorstep. Many of the characters only have a few lines, but that doesn’t stop the actors making the most of their moment – like Thomas Gill, who has us eating out of his hand as Babyface (a.k.a. “the star of Dartford”), or Charlotte Whyte, who sparkles in her brief appearance as the spoilt diva Lena Marrelli.

Bugsy himself is played by Reece Eastgate, who owns the stage with cool confidence and charm; I’ve no doubt he’s got a great future ahead. Joseph Warrilow is great fun as Fat Sam, the incompetent gang boss and nightclub owner, while Calum Page’s slick, ruthless Dandy Dan wouldn’t look out of place in a remake of The Godfather.

There are some fantastic vocal performances too, most notably from Hollister Jacob as wannabe singer Blousey Brown, and Olivia Clark, who not only has a beautiful voice, but on Saturday afternoon also proved her professionalism as she powered through Fizzy’s solo number, Tomorrow, despite some distracting sound interference.

I could name everyone… but we’d be here all week. Suffice to say, every single member of the cast gives it their absolute all, and knowing the short time they’ve had to prepare only makes the achievement all the more impressive.

Directed and choreographed by Richard Peakman, who’s worked on the last five SYP productions, with musical direction from Melanie Crouch, the show dazzles most in its big musical numbers, during which the entire cast fill the stage and auditorium with an irresistible energy and enthusiasm. The finale is particularly infectious, with neither cast nor audience wanting the show to end.

Unfortunately this review is coming towards the end of the three-day run (I was meant to be there for opening night but had a train disaster), but if you have time to grab a ticket for the final show tonight, I really recommend it. Colourful, energetic, funny and joyful (not to mention the most child-friendly gangster story ever written – imagine how much better the world would be if all guns just squirted cream instead of bullets), the production is a wonderful testament to the power of theatre to bring people together – and for those of us who are regulars, it’s a refreshing reminder of the pleasure it can bring to so many.

Bugsy Malone has its final performance tonight, 13th August, at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford.