Annie and friends raise their profile

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
Philippa Davidson catches up on music theatre

As Fringe music continues to expand - contemporary music and jazz have a higher profile this year - competition for venues and audiences becomes keener.

The National Youth Music Theatre has had the George Square Theatre as its Edinburgh home for 17 years. Now, however, the company is on the move to the Assembly Rooms, a more central venue but one in which it may have to struggle, at least initially, to establish its identity.

This year - its 21st anniversary - NYMT offers exclusively its own work. Research into 17th-century chap-books (cheap adventure stories) led the writers (Jeremy James Taylor, Joanna Horton, Peter Whately Allwood) to the extraordinary adventures of Aurelius the apprentice. The first half, set in London, has a familiar feel but in the second half the show explodes as fantasy takes over and colour, imagination and spectacle abound.

Following the success of Bugsy Malone, Tin Pan Ali has all the ingredients of a winner. This is an astoundingly professional show, where the fact that most of the performers are under 14 never seems relevant. Chicago becomes the setting for the Arabian Nights as comic sketches and cheeky song and dance routines follow in quick succession. The choreography is original, set designs and costumes stunning and performances from all the cast are brilliant.

While creating new musicals is a crucial part of the work of the NYMT, some groups prefer to stick with established shows. Annie proved to be an excellent choice for Stage 84 (James Gillespie School) from Bradford. Though obviously low budget, this Annie is hugely enjoyable with an exuberant cast who give everything. The story is sentimental, but orphan Annie (Sophie Wysoczanski) manages to be appealing without descending into cuteness.

By contrast, Barrie, from the Realistic Theatre Company (Southside Community Centre), breaks all the rules. Jonathan Rhodes, and composer Mitch Jenkins have produced several thought-provoking shows and this is no exception. Where else would you find a musical which even touches on the disturbing subjects of adultery and paedophilia? The life of the creator of Peter Pan is probably more interesting to adults than to children but the music is accessible without being obvious and the story is riveting.

The Lightning Man (Young Pleasance at the Pleasance Theatre) comes from the professional writer-director team of Tim and Katherine Norton. It is a pity that the music by Neil Bennett, an imaginative blend of contemporary and folk styles, is not fully integrated into the play. The story is a sinister tale that holds interest throughout, well staged and directed.

Leicestershire Youth Theatre's policy of producing tightly constructed, one-hour shows works particularly well in Hair (St Ann's Community Centre). Revolutionary in its time, it could be forgiven for showing its age, particularly since the Vietnam war is no longer an issue. But, said one of the cast, the ideas of 1968 have a particular appeal for young people in the 1990s. There is no nudity, but beads and flares work even better at recreating the mood of the Age of Aquarius. This is an energetic company performance with excellent musical arrangements.

One way to guarantee a successful children's show is if the artists are also television personalities. The Happy Gang (TV stars of BBC Schools' TV What, Where, When, Why) were turning away audiences from their sing-along show (Pleasance Theatre). Lots of classroom favourites plus action songs and games had the under-sevens joining in with gusto.

Tom and the Magical Flower (Ripley Theatre Company, Harry Younger Hall) is a show of a different kind. 0riginally a Welsh National 0pera commission, the story is based on a Grimm's Fairy Tale and involves a witch, two lovers, and two unconventional pantomime cats, who are in danger of stealing the show. There are 15 songs, and some excellent performances from the student cast.

An unusual alternative to mainstream opera can be found at the Moray House Theatre where the Cambridge 0pera Group performs two short 20th-century operas. The Bear has a score by William Walton (lots of parodies of French and Italian operatic styles, as well as Walton-esque humour) and a gem of story by Chekhov. This lively one-acter runs in repertory with A Dinner Engagement by Lennox Berkeley.

Finally, the British Festival of Youth 0rchestras is larger than ever with events in St Giles Cathedral and the Royal Museum of Scotland as well as in the Central Hall, Tollcross. The well-attended lunchtime concert by Barnet Schools Symphony 0rchestra featured the lively Alegr!as by Roberto Gerhard, an adventurous choice with an interesting orchestral piano part. Performing at the Edinburgh Festival was the orchestra's ultimate ambition, said their conductor, Alan Danson. However the debate on an earlier start to the Festival Fringe is resolved, anything that gives even more young people a chance to bring their shows to Edinburgh must be worthy of consideration.

The British Festival of Youth Orchestras, the National Youth Music Theatre, the Realistic Company and Cambridge Opera continue until the end of the Festival.

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