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.