Monday, 17 August 2015

15 August, 2015 Running Wild (Cass Sculpture Foundation West Sussex) *** 04 August, 2015 Bugsy Malone (Lyric Hammersmith) *****

Two very contrasting summer shows by youth companies

Running Wild directed by Dale Rooks is a production by the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre and celebrates the company’s thirtieth anniversary. This is not the first time the company has mounted an open air promenade production - The Firework-maker’s Daughter made use of the Weald and Downland Museum a few years back. The novel by Michael Morpurgo might at first sight seem unadaptable for the stage since one of the main protagonists is an elephant called Oona. But the CF Youth Theatre has in recent years formed a strong partnership with puppet designers Finn Caldwell  and Toby OliĆ© famous for their ground-breaking work on War Horse. If a horse, why not an elephant? Not only Oona, but family of orang-utans, a Sumatran tiger and a kingfisher inhabit the woods of the Cass Sculpture Park with disconcerting realism in the fading light of an August evening. The co-ordination of the promenade production is faultless and the look and feel of the production has great authenticity. And yet, and yet…

This production pushes all the right buttons but never quite achieves the wow factor. There was a noticeable lack of buzz amongst the audience as we were shepherded back to our busses for the return journey to the car park back in town. Why was this? To start with there is the choice of play. The last seven productions by the company have all been adaptations of novels. Isn’t it about time a theatre company took a closer look at the wide range of plays available for this age-group, or better still, commissioned an original drama? Running Wild is essentially a two-hander between an elephant and a boy. Strictly-speaking, since the animals don’t actually talk in this story it is more accurately a one-person show. The boy, Will, is superbly acted by Alfie Scott and the five puppeteers who bring the elephant to life are very skilled. But where does that leave the other 100+ members of the company? A few peripheral characters make brief appearances, but on the whole the remainder are used to create sound effects and one rather underwhelming piece of movement desigend to represent the Boxing DayTsunami. My guess is that youngsters join youth community theatre projects with the hope of doing something a little more substantial than puppetry or waving their arms about as the sea.

Despite all the research that Morpurgo claims to have done to produce what is quite a sizeable novel, this adaptation is wafer thin on plot, characterisation and believability. It is mired with preachy messages about the sanctity of wild life and the inherent evil of mankind. The characterisation of the animals comes perilously close to anthropomorphism; and in Morpurgo’s world there are no shades or ambiguities. Things are either unquestionably right or wrong. In reality, it isn’t just simple greed and opportunism which drives the destruction of the rainforest, there is also the fact that the indigenous population need to survive and scrape a living. But this is barely touched upon.

Finally, any attempt to create an atmosphere of threat and heart-stopping danger in the half light of a forest was completely destroyed by an army of people in bright jackets with “Staff” printed on the back who spent the evening beckoning and pointing and marshalling (and in some cases physically pushing) us from one point to the next like an army of demented school teachers. Totally unnecessary.

The Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith is more of a phoenix than the Phoenix. It reopens its doors this summer after its latest refurb with a fine production Of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone. Five stars it gets from all the Broadsheets and five stars from me. Bugsy with songs by Paul Williams has been available to English primary schools via the BBC Music Workshop programme for many years and has become a staple junior school production. What better song is there at persuading boys to get involved with musical theatre than Bad Guys (“We’re the very best at being bad!”) It was no surprise then that the American children in my party had to have the whole era of prohibition explained to them whist the English kids didn’t.

What a treat it is to have this version with all the production values of a professional theatre allied to some prodigiously talented local youngsters. The combination of seasoned child stars (many with long West End cvs) and first-timers from local schools and youth groups is what prompted Alan Parker to green-light this production. I had forgotten that the movie, as well as being directed by Parker, was scripted by him and what a sassy, witty and ironic script it is, occupying the ground between kid-speak and Edward G movies of the forties.

One of the hallmarks of this production, and a source of endless mirth, is to make the most of the relative sizes of performers. Older teens are used for ensemble and dance numbers and to see (and accept) beings half their size calling the shots is highly amusing. Dandy Dan turns out to be a little pipsqueak who holds absolute sway over his gang of heavies, whilst Leroy the boxer is a big boy, very much in the mould of Frank Bruno. Baby Face is even tinier than the others.

The NYC accents are rock solid and the dead pan delivery exactly captures the underlying irony of the piece. The musical numbers are superbly choreographed by Drew NcOnie and performed with pizazz. And, unlike the movie, there is no question of dubbed vocals here. The young cast do all their own singing and mighty fine it is too from the brassy Tallulah to the fragile Blowsey who’s rendering of Only a Fool on the night I attended had shades of Billy Holiday.

Three casts rotate the main parts. On the night every single programme was purloined by younger members of my party so I have no idea who I saw. Whoever it was who played Fat Sam had a natural comic touch. At the moment when Fat Sam is at his lowest ebb, and has lost most of his gang he calls for a scene change. Nothing happens. He tries again. Nothing happens. And so he does the entire scene change himself, lugging props and furniture back and forth whilst fuming and muttering under his breath. Sheer genius.


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