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Productions & Reviews

Wendy & Peter Pan (Phoenix Youth Theatre)

For years one of the highlights of the London pantomime season has been ‘Peter Pan’. This week’s production by Phoenix Youth Theatre was far more challenging. In taking on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version the company’s director, Sarah O’Neill, raised the bar for her young cast. Far removed from panto it is more a fantasy drama, presenting challenges in staging; from the children’s bedroom to Neverland and the pirate ship. As with previous PYT productions creative sound effects helped to establish changes of mood and location. The flying sequences were brilliantly achieved by clever lighting through the theatre’s newly acquired gauze. Huge challenges for the backstage team but clever costuming also contributed, as in Peter’s first appearance trying to find his shadow, (black from head to toe, mirroring Peter’s every movement); from the Edwardian elegance of the parents to the flamboyant swashbuckling style of a superb Captain Hook played by Dan Canham.

The show belonged to Sarah’s young cast. They delivered their lines with faultless assurance and I must mention a few. Lucy Roberts, such an accomplished young actress playing the mother, Mrs. Darling, a role she took on at less than four weeks notice, then switching character to double as Tiger Lily. The fairy Tink, an hilarious characterisation by Lily Hampson, straight out of Coronation Street! The audience loved her. Is Lily from the Forest? – hard to believe; Rochdale for me! Peter Pan superbly played by Eben Harris. Eben has everything, pace, agility, stage persona, clear diction. Eben simply was Peter Pan.

The scenes when the cast of pirates and ‘lost boys’ filled the stage was suberbly managed. And so we come to the final scenes. The reconciliation of Mr and Mrs Darling played with such maturity by Lucy Roberts and Ollie O’Neill; and the touching reunion between Wendy (The delightful Maggie Hearne who also took on the role at four week’s notice!) and her mother with Peter hovering wistful and unseen beyond the window. The audience applauded and cheered; two curtain calls were demanded. In the foyer as they left some of the audience were seen weeping, so emotional was the climax. ‘A wonderful show’ they said. Phoenix Youth Theatre continues to go from strength to strength.

Brian Jackson

Reviews of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Phoenix Youth Theatre)

Over the past few years we have become used to seeing the theatrical bar raised with each Phoenix Youth Theatre production. From their WW2 production “Raid” (scripted by the company themselves), through the epic “Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe”, to Willy Russell’s contemporary comedy “Stags and Hens” this award-winning company of young people have excelled. With this week’s production of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, PYT continue to push at the boundaries of professional theatre. “Alice” is not easy. The storyline does not pursue a natural narrative, but instead, with Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole to Wonderland we follow her through a series of bizarre episodes until she wakes to normality. The curtain opens on a colourful storybook set with a silk-draped garden bench on which sleeps Alice, (played to perfection by the delightfully bewildered Rosamund Williams). Woken by the White Rabbit her descent down the rabbit hole is the first “coup de theatre”. In a shaft of light on the darkened stage, amid vapour pouring from above, Alice climbs and trapezes high into the rabbit hole drapes before safely landing in Wonderland.

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Here the young cast, aided by superb costuming, imaginative face-paint and make-up, introduced us to a wonderful array of characters. Another “coup de theatre” – puppetry under ultraviolet lights with the puppeteers concealed behind black gauze enables the Cheshire cat’s disembodied grin to appear and disappear (together with the crocodile, lobster and assorted whimsies) alongside the onstage characters.

Click here to see a video of the opening scenes

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There were some memorable performances; Katie Pothecary (a PYT award-winning actress) brought a terrifyingly smiling Queen of Hearts to life. Morgan Harris’s deranged Duchess faultlessly delivering accelerating lines of nonsense; Eben Harris (Frog Footman) and Oscar Morgan (Fish Footman) two eleven year olds performing an hilarious double act, also stepping in front of the curtain to cover set changes going on behind (can’t wait to see more of them!). Then Mock Turtles Ollie O’Neill and Hannah Callen entertained us; and Knave Owen Needham-Church assisted by young Knave Noah O’Neill. With thirty young actors in the cast it is impossible to name them all, but their focus and concentration was total and all played their roles with distinction. Director Sarah O’Neill and her fabulous team of artists, costumiers, light and sound technicians, set builders, properties and backstage crew, all must be congratulated. Once again the Phoenix Youth Theatre bar has been raised in pursuit of excellence.

Brian Jackson

As the show started and Daisy Canham, as Alice’s older sister, set the scene beautifully I was thinking to myself, the lightings a bit low for the set… Then all became clear! There was so much going on that I didn’t know where to look first, but taking centre stage Rosamund Williams, playing Alice, did an amazing aerobatic display using two ribbons that were very cleverly utilised throughout the production. The UV lighting was another clever feature, especially in the very open stage area. The puppeteers did a brilliant job; I loved the Cheshire cat which was so simple yet effective. The set itself was fantastic, I loved the window over the door, and it truly amazes me how well the cast manage with such a limited space. I would love to mention everyone individually but if I did that, I would spend too much time making notes rather than enjoying the performance. Alice was well cast and I thought the facial expressions of the Frog Footman played by Eben Harris were better than a thousand words. On the whole I thought most of the cast did extremely well but occasionally I couldn’t hear some of the dialogue. Unfortunately the Jam Tart scene was very quiet and I must admit I found the musical underscoring very irritating on these occasions as I felt it masked the quieter actors. Morgan Harris was very funny as the Duchess, and Katie Pothecary was a very dominant Queen of Hearts. Ollie O’Neill and Hannah Callen were hysterically funny as the mock turtles; their interaction with the audience was great and the adlibbing natural and effective. Harriet Storey has excellent diction and was very good in both the Mouse and Queen’s Gnome characters. This really was a lovely production and the whole experience from entering the theatre to leaving was quite magical. Congratulations one and all for a lovely evening.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

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Stags & Hens (Phoenix Youth Theatre) reviews

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Phoenix Youth Theatre has an enviable reputation for quality productions, much of it due to the dedication and skill of the backstage technical team. This has helped to set the standard for Director Sarah O’Neill’s prizewinning company of young actors. And ‘Stags and Hens’ by Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine; Educating Rita) did not disappoint us. Ripe with innuendo the comedy is set in the toilets of a seedy nightclub and the set designer and construction team excelled in creating a ladies powder room stage R complete with toilet cubicle and a sink with water (repeated for the men stage L) and between them a central flight of steps in a dingy corridor leading up to the throbbing dance floor. Here the Hen party of Linda (Morgan Harris) and (unknown to her) the Stag night of Dave, her intended (played by Dan Canham) is being held. Thus we know we are in for humorous misunderstandings and some unexpected revelations as the play explores the pre-marital misgivings of Linda with her friends. Bernadette, unhappily married (superb blowsy vulgarity cameo’d by Zoe Hutton) out to get herself a bloke for the evening; Frances (a feisty characterisation by Yasmin Poole); Carol (Daisy Canham in a very mature performance combining world weariness and innocence) while Maureen, innocent and naïve (in a lovely display of comic timing by Hannah Callen) simply wants everyone to be happy! The girls’ scenes alternated with the stags; young men looking for a pick-up, full of bravado and terrified lest their fragile egos are shattered by rejection. Thus ‘Jack-the-lad’ Robbie, (beautifully portrayed by Sam Callen) distraught at the mess drunken groom-to-be Dave has deposited on his trousers (‘And me best suit too!’) only to be turned down by a girl; ‘I don’t dance with men in suits!’ Kav (young Owen Needham-Church) all cocksure arrogance; bullying Eddy (Adam Warner), only interested in the football team he’s trying to hold together, and finally insecure Billy (a terrific comic creation by Billy Jones). Into all this appears Peter, a celebrity pop singer with his ‘Roadie’ – Billy Jones and Sam Callen doubling up to create totally new characters demanding some astoundingly slick costume changes (a huge ‘Well done’ to Billy and Sam). Amongst all the comings and goings two performances stood out. With not a single line to say newcomer Dan Canham’s drunken groom-to-be Dave was totally convincing throughout. And in a particularly poignant scene Morgan Harris gave a spellbinding performance as bride-to-be Linda revealed her unhappiness and fears to Peter, leading to the final denouement when, as her friends pair up with the boys, Linda abandons her drunken fiancée Dave, leaving him unconscious on the toilet floor to run off to an uncertain future with Peter. The capacity audience loved it and at every level ‘Stags and Hens’ was another triumph for Phoenix Youth Theatre, who tackled the issues raised by Willy Russell’s adult comedy in a mature and confident production.

Brian Jackson

It was lovely being back at the Phoenix Theatre for the Youth Theatre Group’s production of “Stags and Hens”. Initially, having read the play synopsis, I was a little sceptical that a youth group could pull off this Willy Russell production. I am pleased to say that the cast handled the subject with a maturity beyond their years, especially the young ladies. I liked that the setting was a tacky nightclub in Cinderford and the local accent was used by some of the young men in the cast; giving authenticity. Owen could do with slowing his dialogue down a little as I lost some of his throwaway lines which were very funny but he had a good stage presence. Billy, playing the two pivotal roles of Billy and Peter, depicted his versatility extremely well. Samuel also took on two characters, Robbie and the Roadie. Sam has a very relaxed style which again proved to be an advantage to the rapid and unusual character changes he had to make, which he handled with aplomb. Dan playing the bridegroom to be, played a very good drunk. Adam played Eddy, the angry young man, who was fiercely loyal to his best friend even though he didn’t like the idea of losing him to Linda, the bride. I would have liked to have seen Adam direct his dialogue more to the audience as we lost some of his facial and emotional interpretation; but this is a positive observation as I wanted just a bit more. The young ladies were very funny throughout and had the “talking into a mirror scenario” off pat, especially Zoe playing Bernadette, who I genuinely think could see only herself and not the audience sat in front of her. Her facial expressions were hilarious and she commanded the stage with her confidence and timing. Daisy, as Carol, was the catty friend who put the weakest member of the group down at every opportunity and did so very well. Hannah was hilarious as Maureen, the dorky friend, who was highly excitable and laughed and cried in equal measure. Hannah was very good and absolutely believable. Morgan played Linda, the bride to be, and gave a strong portrayal of a complex character who had fallen into an engagement and possible matrimony by default rather than love. Morgan showed the turmoil Linda felt and was completely believable and her final scene was particularly strong. Yasmin looked the youngest member of the cast but acted with great maturity and came across very well. Overall the cast delivered a very good performance with good stage craft. My only negative observation is that the ladies diction was much better than the young men’s who at times could have been clearer. I had a lovely warm welcome from the Front of House and bar staff, thank you all.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

 

Private Peaceful

I went to see a Phoenix Youth Theatre performance of “Private Peaceful” at the Phoenix Theatre on Tuesday and I was very impressed. Author Simon Reade has adapted his play from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. It is a deeply moving portrayal of camaraderie and courage, innocence and brutality. Director, Sarah O’Neill, says this is her most challenging production and she has succeeded in developing and training this fine ensemble of players.

The story begins in rural Devon and moves to the trenches at the front line in France during WW1. The play contains some adult themes, such as the tale of two brothers in love with the same girl in the first half, as well as the horrors of the trenches in the First World War following on in this fascinating story. These young actors dealt admirably with these challenges. All the cast deserve congratulations for their performances in this tale and managing the many scene changes which were seamless and covered with some hauntingly beautiful music. With regret, I cannot mention every person’s performance because of lack of space.

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Ben Butler (left), as Tommo Peaceful, was very mature in his reflective role and the pacing of his part –a superb performance. Ed Poynton showed an authority in his part as the Colonel and Sgt Hanley. The “other” Tommo Peaceful, performed by Joe Lowen-Grey (below right), was a fine study in the vulnerability of his character. Well done! Zoe Doughty, playing Molly, displays a well developed sense of love and affection towards the brothers – I loved her facial expressions! Yasmin Poole playing the innkeeper was a real fire cracker – well done with the French accent . Ollie O’Neill’s guitar playing helped create the atmosphere among the waiting troupes. Adam Warner played the part of the rather slow brother Big Joe with sensitivity and control.  Sam Callen (below) as Charlie Peaceful dealt brilliantly with the demanding adaptations of his part and he broke all of our hearts with his final speeches.

 

The first half contained some charming scenes, notably a delightful bathing scene with Charlie, Tommo and Molly (above left). There were many fine pieces of theatre in Act 2 with the trench scenes conveying the horrors of war. Costumes, lighting, sound and scene changes are so important in this play which is very demanding to stage. All of these were done with a professional touch. This was a quality production which will have a lasting effect on all who watched it. Well done Sarah, well done team. Thank you.

Gordon Brigg

 

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

The Phoenix Youth Theatre first came to our attention a few years ago with Willy Russell’s ‘Our Day Out’, a play about a school trip to the seaside.

Their ambition has grown in recent seasons, culminating in last year’s ‘Raid’, a moving dramatisation of the Coventry air-raid and it’s aftermath, researched and written by the boys and girls of the company themselves; and with prizes won at this years Hereford Drama Festival.

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And so we come to this season’s offering, C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.

It must be said at the outset that the Phoenix Theatre, though wonderfully equipped with professional lighting and sound systems has a small stage with wing space virtually non-existent. But great ingenuity has been shown in productions of recent years to reveal the latent potential of the Phoenix and overcome what would be seen as limiting factors. This week Phoenix Youth Theatre blew all these prejudices away with a production which borders on epic.

Director Sarah O’Neill has put 36 young actors on stage in a tale about four children who pass through a wardrobe to enter Narnia, a magical land torn by rivalry between the wicked White Witch (Yasmin Poole exercising her powers with awesome majesty) and Aslan, the good lion superbly costumed and portrayed by an impressive Declan Needham-Church. In fact the costumes were excellent and this disciplined company of young actors whose ages range from 11 to 17, maintained their characters throughout giving us leopards, wolves, beavers, centaurs and a whole range of fabled creatures. It would be invidious to pick out individuals without doing a disservice to the company as a whole; mention one and you mention them all. But tribute must be paid to the seniors in the company; Sam Callen as ‘Peter’, Morgan Poole playing ‘Edmund’; Anna Ricks barely recognisable as ‘Tumnus’, Clemmie Pursey’s ‘Mrs. Macready’; the delightful ballet of Amy Irvine; ‘Susan’ and ‘Lucy’, the Daughters-of-Eve superbly played by Lorna Griffiths and Rosie Williams whose expressive face carries such a range of emotions. With apologies to all the others who space does not allow me to mention except to say that the experienced members kept the pace, drama and tension intact amongst their less experienced colleagues.

IMG_4133eA word about the backstage team. A dramatic lighting plot from Trevor Jones (150 lighting cues!) coupled with Chantal Poole’s superb soundscape enriched the action whilst the many set changes were smoothly managed by Stage Managers Julie Church and Sam Solandt. Full marks too for set design and a backcloth painted by members of the Phoenix team and the talented Mr. Callen. But the evening belonged to Sarah and her company of boys and girls with a production that transcends the physical limits of the Phoenix Theatre. The show’s final performance is on Wednesday but don’t rush out to buy a last minute ticket; every seat has already been sold for this wonderful show.

Brian Jackson
October 2014