WHAT a wealth of talent there is in Warminster, and how hard they work. It is less than a month since the Athenaeum Limelight Players staged a powerful, contemporary version of Macbeth, and this week that production’s Lady M, Tanya Stockting, is back at the theatre as musical director and pianist for the youth group, Little Sparrows, in Smike.
Smike is a show that has been a favourite with schools and youth theatres since it was first performed more than 40 years ago, and it’s easy to see why. Like Oliver!, it has a large cast of children with plenty of opportunities for individual cameo performances, a heart-breaking central character and a couple of out and out hissable baddies.
The problem with this production is not the performances, particularly the children, it is the music. The musicians are very good, but they are much too loud. I moved seats at the interval to see if the balance was better from a different part of the theatre, but it wasn’t. The volume was a problem for many in the audience, who were complaining that they couldn’t hear the children and the words of the songs. The Athenaeum is not a huge theatre, and the five-piece band was very close to the stage and very loud, particularly the percussion.
Charlie Schofield was a touching Smike and the orphaned Smeeton in the school scenes which provide the framing device for this Roger Holman/Simon May show. Smike is one of Dickens’ most haunting characters, beaten, starved, bullied and rescued by a decent young man, Nicholas Nickley, who gives him the first affection and love he has ever known. The show stops at the point where Nicholas stops Squeers brutally flogging the terrified child, and the other children turn on Squeers and his monstrous family.
Brian Long played the headmaster in the contemporary school and Mr Squeers. He had great fun slipping between Squeers’ assumed “posh” voice for the parents and his natural Yorkshire accent. He was fine at the verbal sadism but this man is a vile bully and he should have been more physically grotesque and frightening. He also needed more variety in the pacing of his speeches.
Dora Bishop was funny as the frosty drama teacher Miss Grant and frightful as the evil Mrs Squeers. Her big singing voice easily soared above the music, and she extracted every ounce of sheer nastiness from the brimstone scene. It’s a pity the directors didn’t encourage this very talented young actress to adopt a Yorkshire accent – Mrs Squeers should not talk like Nancy in Oliver.
Tom Hiscocks has a good singing voice and just the right balance of sensitivity and courage as Nicholas Nickleby/Mr Nicholls. It was easy to see that this charming young man would win the confidence of half-starved bullied children – and the admiring glances of the Squeers’ daughter Fanny (Astrid Bishop).
Among the other children, Ben Macnaughton as Bolder gave his all to the big Dotheboys Rock song, and the performances of the chorus as the feisty present-day children and the half-starved Dotheboys pupils were nicely differentiated.
This was a good show, with some terrific performances, sadly swamped by the music. It’s not fair on a youth theatre production if the kids can’t be heard. They work their socks off in rehearsal and in performance and they deserve not to be drowned out.