It's not every day you get called to the London Palladium. But that's what happened to drama teacher Caroline Small and her music teacher colleague, Paul Barker, last month.
Their musical, Paradise Park, written for pupils at Hope Valley College in Derbyshire, reached the finals of the competition for the prestigious Vivian Ellis Prize. It's a national competition that aims to encourage new writers of musical theatre. This year, for the first time, it included a category for writers creating work for young people, and Paradise Park was runner-up.
The high profile of the award gave both teachers a thrill. "What we really wanted was for more schools to hear about it and to think they could put it on too," says Caroline Small.
The duo collaborated on the musical nine years ago, when both worked full-time at Hope Valley College, a small 11-16 comprehensive with a strong commitment to drama and the performing arts. Since then, Paul Barker has taken up an appointment in Bahrain and Ms Small has become head of drama at the school.
Paradise Park was their third joint performance project at the school, which serves a rural catchment area in the heart of Derbyshire's Peak District.
"I wanted to do something meaty, with humour, a thought-provoking plot, with young people playing the central characters, and caricatured adults around them," says Caroline.
She came up with Paradise Park - a piece of wasteground beside a disused canal in the heart of an industrialised town. It's hardly the Garden of Eden, but it's paradise to the children, giving them the space and freedom to be themselves.
The story revolves around the children's battle against the local council, which wants to redevelop the park into a tourist attraction with shops and cafes. The children are befriended by Jacob, an eccentric old man living on a canal barge. He refuses to budge when offered a place in an old people's home by over-the-top, operatic councillors. He tells the young people they must work together to fight the adults who threaten their territory.
The end is optimistic but not without sadness. Jacob dies just as the council changes its mind - the area will become a conservation park and include an adventure playground. "It would've been too sugary and neat if it had ended happily, says Caroline. "But at the end of Jacob's life, he had found something to fight for. The play shows that however small you are, you can get involved."
The score, ranging from rock numbers to ballads to comic songs, is designed to be as inclusive as possible especially for schools without sixth forms. "You can do this show without good male voices," she insists. "We planned it that way. Boys of 16 are unlikely to sing at the standard required by professional shows."
There is plenty of scope for dance, movement, ensemble acting and choral singing too, although there are some solos. In all, the score contains nine musical numbers and some incidental music. While substantial for young performers, it's nothing like the 20 to 25 songs demanded by a production of, say, West Side Story or Oliver.
"We didn't want to overload Paradise Park with music, which may sound a strange thing to say about a musical. But a young, inexperienced band will often struggle."
There are equal numbers of parts for girls and boys, for children of varying ages and an unlimited number in the chorus. "For a small comprehensive (480 on roll) our original production had a big cast of 95, then there was a show band of 45 and a backstage crew of about 50. It was crazy but great fun," says Caroline.
She believes the litmus test of a good musical for young people is whether people come away saying "it was brilliant" rather than "it was good for a school". But even more than that, success is measured by the way it affects the young actors and musicians. "I want students to feel fulfilled in what they do."
Caroline Small and Paul Barker are in the process of getting 'Paradise Park' published. Schools interested in buying the pound;4 script and production notes should contact Ms Small at 164 Blair Athol Road, Sheffield S11 7GD, or e-mail her at: email@example.com.
School musicals reviewed, page 22.