Oliver needs more

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Philippa Davidson reports on young people's musical shows. Shortage of funds is a universal concern this year. Fringe music is probably more threatened than theatre or comedy, as its shows often depend for their success on large forces and lavish production. So it is encouraging that even in hard times youth groups and individual schools are still managing to bring quality performances to Edinburgh.

The National Youth Music Theatre is currently supported by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has had the sense to see that this splendid outfit helps to keep the British musical alive and well supplied with young talent. NYMT offers two superb shows at the George Square Theatre. The Beggar's Opera is an ambitious choice which could be dull without the injection of originality and energy it receives from the talented cast. Voice coach Gillyanne Kayes has achieved excellent diction - vital if all the nuances of the text are to be conveyed to the audience. The contemporary prologue is suitably anti-establishment but the appeal of the show probably owes more to good-humoured bawdiness than to political satire. Martin West's deceptively simple arrangements of the songs for two guitars and a bass are captivating.

Bugsy Malone is so tailor made for the talents of NYMT under sixteens that it is easy to overlook the effort needed to train performers as young as 11 in song and dance routines that would stretch many a professional. The exuberance of the whole evening makes you forget the dubious plot - this is definitely not a show that bears too close an examination. Kent Riley as Bugsy is one of those special NYMT discoveries, but all the performers - including those in cameo roles - play their part in this hugely enjoyable romp. Choreographer Kay Shepherd devised the imaginative and witty dance routines. This show - with one of the best casts ever - should be seen by London audiences.

The girls of Queen's College, London, return for a second visit with Insurrection (Old St Paul's Church), an original musical written by the school's musical director James Rose. It tells the story of women's struggle to gain the vote through the diary of suffragette Florence and her daughter Joan. The show was cleverly constructed, with an attractive score and excellent singing from Florence, Joan and a strong chorus. The only problem was that no one conveyed much passion for the cause but when I spoke to the cast afterwards their enthusiasm was only too evident.

The team of Jonathan Rhodes and Mitch Jenkins have created several new musicals, including The Railway Children and The Drummer Boy, for the Realistic Theatre Company of Edinburgh (Southside Community Centre). This year they decided to play safe with Oliver, hoping to draw a capacity audience. This group provides an important outlet for young performers in Lothian but sadly this production lacks the impact that money can buy.

However, Lionel Bart's score always makes Oliver worth hearing and this version is no exception, particularly as it has an outstanding Nancy (Lorna Fleming) and excellent performance too from Oliver, Fagin, Dodger et al.

Individual performance is not what Leicester Youth Arts (St Ann's Community Centre) is all about. Their musical, Oh, What A Lovely War, was a company effort delivered with a commitment and panache that served as a reminder that this historic show of the Sixties still has a message today. The Christmas scene and the scene in church were particularly effective. Some of the cuts made the sequence of events difficult to follow but the show moved snappily and it is surprising what can be achieved with a few well chosen props and headgear. (LYA's other musical show is Chicago - both till August 24).

Stage 84's version of The Little Shop of Horrors (James Gillespie's School) didn't really give this enterprising group from Bradford (three times finalists in the Barclays Awards) a chance to display what it could do and the show only livened up when the whole company took to the stage (unfortunately not big enough to allow dancing beyond a hand jive). Effective costumes and props (including the sinister man-eating plant), and good individual performances couldn't raise this from the banal but those with a taste for the cult movie might disagree.

A wily servant girl and a rich, stupid old man, common characters in the commedia dell'arte, appear in Bedfordshire Opera's Pimpinone (Moray House Studios). This delightful, 50 minute comic opera by Telemann demands that its two characters be actors as well as singers. Roland Anderson and Rachel Nicholls succeeded admirably in combining singing and clowning, all the more difficult in view of the complexity of the music. This was a real gem and a welcome change from second-rate Broadway.

Festival regulars know that the best orchestral music in Edinburgh can be heard at the Central Hall, Tollcross (Festival of British Youth Orchestras). Elgar Howarth drew full potential from the Cambridgeshire Youth Orchestra, who treated their audience to a superb evening of music that included a sensitive and technically impressive performance of Debussy's Iberia, and an electrifying version of excerpts from Gotterdammerung, with soprano Philippa Dames-Longworth. Hertfordshire Youth Orchestra played an interesting lunchtime programme of music that ranged from Mozart to Gershwin.

Lack of funding seems to be beginning to bite in the form of scaled-down productions, safer shows and higher seat prices. At the same time directors and teachers maintain that the benefits to young musicians of appearing in Edinburgh cannot be measured in monetary terms.

The Festival of British Youth Orchestras, The National Youth Music Theatre and The Realistic Theatre Company continue until August 31.

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