Category Archives: Reviews

Theatre, kids’ stuff, usually

Camp Bestival 2016 – the return

Our youngest, Bonnie, had been to five festivals before her fifth birthday.
Due to our largish family, it was always cheaper to do a festi-hol, but by 2014 the elder ones had started to get jaded and wanted to do ‘normal’ holidays. We did like the masses and had a couple of short trips to Spain and a drive through Europe.
Then Camp Bestival announced Fat Boy Slim and Tears for Fears were headlining for 2016 and I couldn’t resist.
So here we are again, blazing sunshine, our trusty 20-year-old Japanese Bongo van and an awning propped on a windy hill in Dorset.
So far we’ve watched the kids make a den in the Dingly Dell, shoot crossbows with the Tudors, stuff their faces with posh ice-cream and organic salad (and chips) and enjoyed acts as eclectic as Turin Brakes and Mr Motivator.
Two days to go, so far, so good!

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Review of Cinderella, with John Partridge and Cbeebies’ Sid, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2015

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John Partridge as the Prince Sid Sloane as Dandini Pics by Robert Day

Cinderella Review, Derngate theatre Northampton.

THERE’S a tradition with many families at Christmas that shows more faith than going to midnight mass – and that’s booking a year in advance for the Derngate panto.
Lots of Northamptonians do it – after all, the Derngate pantos are fairly traditional and you should reasonably expect something with a famous face, some sparkly costumes and the requisite number of ‘He’s behind you!’s.
They are always Qdos productions, a vast entertainment group who put on commercial, traditional pantos, usually with at least one celebrity turn, up and down the country. Next door at the Royal you’ll find something a little less panto and a little more ‘Christmas play’, and this year it’s the Snow Queen.

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Bobby Delaney as Ugly Sister (Cheryl) Ben Stock as Ugly Sister (Rita) Pics by Robert Day

If it’s dames and double entendres you’re after, Cinderella has those in abundance. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney as the Ugly Sisters give it the full-on panto dame routine, with amazing costumes and good comic timing. But they get rather pushed into the chorus by ex-Eastender and rumoured Big Brother contestant John Partridge as Prince Charming, whose stripping and whooping and winking make you think that Cinderella would be furiously swiping left on the fairytale version of Tinder.
When Partridge started singing, and he can certainly carry a tune, my 7-year-old turned to ask: “Is it the interval soon?” She and her 8-year-old friend fidgeted far more than they usually do at the theatre while our 12-year-old, trying his hardest not to sound un-cool, asked if some of the jokes were really suitable for kids, “as it isn’t even like you have to work out what they really mean, it’s just rude stuff.” Then he went back to playing games on his phone.
I’ll admit I was watching through gritted teeth through quite a lot of Cinderella, as young actress Rachel Flynn battled to be heard above her braying prince and the whiney Buttons, played by Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Danny Posthill, whose main talent was rapid-fire impressions.

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John Partridge as the Prince Sid Sloane as Dandini Pics by Robert Day

There was a big cheer from the audience when Cbeebies favourite Sid (Sloane) appeared, and he made the cheerful most of his role as the prince’s servant and sidekick Dandini. The beautiful glittery costumes and athletic dance moves of the girl dancers got our seven-year-old back watching and the audience seemed to be whooping along with it all. Either that or they’d been wise enough to have a proper drink beforehand.

There is an intended ‘wow’ moment involving a mechanical horse, some bubbly snow and some stage flying work, but I’m afraid I couldn’t stop laughing at the horse’s gammy leg.
I’ve been to a lot of pantomimes over the years and despite the jokey reputation for it being a long way from high art, the writing has to be good to carry the clichés and flamboyance that comes from having to recycle much-loved stories and carry slightly-famous non-actors.

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Rachel Flynn as Cinderella

With Cinderella I got the feeling that the production bosses just couldn’t be bothered this year. Stick some faces up there, work some good dancers into a few routines, call the local dance school for some sweet kids for the chorus, find someone off a TV talent show that at least the teens will recognise and shove in some fart jokes. Work them all solid for a couple of months and take the cash that people effectively pledged without knowing what they were really going to get.
If you’ve already got tickets, or were thinking of going, don’t let this put you off. But if you can, make sure you drop into the theatre’s new Bar Hygge beforehand, for a ‘quick stiffener’. There you go Qdos scriptwriters, you can have that one for next year.

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Oh no, not snow! Review Royal and Derngate, Northampton

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Kate Hearn as Polly. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

THERE’S a bunch of four and five-year-olds running up and down the steps in the bar area of Royal & Derngate, completely oblivious to everyone around them. The game escalates quite quickly into Slide-Down-The-Steps-On-Your-Tummy.
Oh, and they are all girls, most dressed in very sparkly dresses.
Our seven-year-old Bonnie has settled herself up onto a bar stool and is looking down on them, literally, while shaking her head: “Ah, reception kids,” she sighs, sounding more like a pensioner than her own grandparents. She’s read the blurb about the show we’re waiting to see and seen that it’s for under-fives – and she’s seven.
We’re here, Bonn and I, to see one of the Royal & Derngate’s famous ‘immersive’ shows for children. These are often linked to the Royal’s annual Christmas show and this year it’s Oh no, not snow! which references The Snow Queen, playing to rather larger audiences upstairs.
Oh No, not snow! (which will become ONNS for the purposes of word count) is being held in the Underground at R&D, an innovative space that allows directors to make sets as ‘rooms’ which the audience can walk through as part of the show.
The story has already started as the audience of kids and carers walk through to put away their coats. Sam (played by Max Gallagher) introduces himself and gets the smaller members of the audience to rip up paper to make snow.
Then his mum arrives and tells him to take his ‘friends’ (that’s us) to help tidy his bedroom.
What follows is a journey through a couple of self-contained rooms (I don’t want to spoil the surprise with too much detail, but there is a ‘wow’ moment) with the audience of parents and pre-schoolers in tow.
Director Chris Elmer-Gorry has created a delightful introduction to the fantasy world of theatre for the under-fives in ONNS, and I think it’s a real strength of R&D that they create these ‘tasters’ of theatre for the very young.

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Sam, played by Max Gallagher. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

There are moments where the tiniest tots, oblivious to the fact there is a story being told, get involved in the action, and the actors, particularly Kate Hearn as Polly, do well to manage and ad-lib around their impromptu cast members. Sometimes the children are invited to help the cast in certain tasks, and sometimes they just join in anyway, and it’s up to the skill of the performer to manage the situation without breaking the flow, as there’s already no ‘fourth wall’ of traditional theatre.
I’ve reviewed several of these immersive shows over recent years and in this case Bonnie, aged 7, was totally engrossed in the action and the story.
There are a couple of songs that went on marginally too long for some of the kids, who I watched chucking ‘snow’ in strangers faces instead. I think the age of the children, set at under 5, could go up to six or seven, but I’d also put a limit on the number of adults coming with each child, because at times it seemed that there were just too many big people in the room closely stalking their offspring, rather than sitting back and letting them join in the action with the other children.
Oh No, Not Snow runs in Derngate’s Underground until January 3, with limited tickets available from the Box Office on 01604 624811.

 

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Lunching alone at Academy Coffee Haus, Northampton

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Once upon a time in the very distant past, I wrote regular restaurant reviews for the local daily paper.
We’d be allowed to claim £30 on expenses (for two, with drinks!), and always went incognito, so we’d be treated the same as any other paying member of the public.
Restaurant reviews were good ‘talkers’ for newspapers, as readers would like to share their opinions, especially once the Internet arrived and made commenting on stories far easier.
Anyway, in my reviewing days, I’d sometimes take Bloke, father of my children and fellow journo, who unfortunately considered food reviewing an almighty pain in the arse. He would prefer the Just Being A Normal Punter aspect to include Not Bloody Reviewing Everything.
Therefore my favourite restaurant reviews were with another journalist, Jess. For several years we’d use sporadic restaurant reviews as an excuse to catch up. We were both working full time, having babies and generally being rubbish at staying in touch. Restaurant reviews also meant we ate proper food rather than picking at the kids’ leftover fish fingers or eating nothing but crisps while driving from one job to another.

Reviews are not as easy as you might think. They can be utterly tedious to read if the writer insists on something along the lines of ‘we went here, we had this’ using words like ‘nice’ and ‘tasty’.
Reviews should paint a picture of the experience, even if the only picture published is a GV: a general shot of the restaurant from the outside.
They should ultimately tell your reader whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. Usually we were pretty happy with our experiences. Restaurateurs would display framed cuttings of reviews behind their tills. Sometimes they weren’t so happy: one threatened to pull their advertising from the paper because I’d said the service was slow. Another establishment, that had served us raw chicken, then served me, the editor and the newspaper group with writs claiming defamation in the review. It later transpired the place was being run by a crook, who had run out on other restaurants and debts around the UK, and he’d finally been caught.
Time moved on. Jess and I had yet more kids, our lives went in different directions, we were still good pals, but without the regular meals.
Then we met up again and made a date to meet for lunch, at Academy Coffee Haus, tucked away behind Debenhams in College Street Mews.
For once I wasn’t late, and even cycled there instead of driving (nearest parking would be in Marehold or on street on Bridge St). But Jess was poorly and couldn’t make it.
I decided to stay, and in the spirit of our previous culinary adventures, I’d review my lunch experience.
The cafe is small, it has around 30 covers, simple wooden chairs and a couple of padded benches. Ceiling fans add character and I presume some air in the summer months.
There’s a loo that is small and probably not wheelchair accessible, but which had a changing mat and emergency nappies and wipes, something I’d have appreciated when wrestling four children aged under ten around town in the past.
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I had a couple of good cappuccino coffees, in a decent sized cup with a biccy on the side, and a huge chicken and sundried tomato salad, with olives and pinenuts.
I think the menu did say it came with pesto bread, but I didn’t get any, and to be honest I totally forgot about this while eating, so it clearly wasn’t needed. The chicken was well seasoned and hot, and was delicious with both fresh and sundried tomatoes, pinenuts and black olives.
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Eating alone was actually a pretty sociable experience. I chatted with a young artist who had just moved back to Northampton from London after realising she just couldn’t go on simply earning money just to pay the extortionate rent. An old journo contact who now works in PR by coincidence arrived to have a coffee and cake lunch just to escape the office, and joined me for a chat too.
One waitress had to escape outside for five minutes due to an attack of the most entertaining hiccups I’ve ever heard, like a tiny puppy yelping. On another table a girl was telling her friend how desperately unhappy she was at work, and vowing to leave, while her pal tried to talk her round.
The staff were friendly but not intrusive, and my total bill came to £9.45, pretty good value for a warm and well fed couple of hours, with free WiFi.
If you’re in Northampton I’d recommended it, whether meeting friends or not. It’s far from a lonely experience.
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Review of Gaslight, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 2015.

Review of Gaslight, Royal & Derngate, Northampton. (Press night performance)

 

By Hilary Scott

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

YOU usually find mention of the set design for a new theatre production much further down in a review, but in Gaslight at Northampton’s Royal Theatre the stage is the first star you lay eyes on.

With the action confined to the classic ‘one-room-in-a-period-setting’, it’s a tough job to be original.

But William Dudley and the Royal’s set-production team have created a stunningly clever Ames Room – one of those that alters your perception of the things within it – which perfectly reflects the theme of the play: manipulation of someone’s mind to make them doubt their own sanity, or Gaslighting.

The use of clever modern video projection, in a 130-year-old theatre, for a play set in stifling the stifling late Victorian age shouldn’t work – yet it does, brilliantly (except for one very ridiculous section near the end which doesn’t, and made us laugh when we should be shocked).

We had no time to leaf through the programme beforehand, which is just as well, because then we had no spoilers or expectations. This is a psychological thriller, which made the entire audience shift uncomfortably in its seats as the stellar cast messed with our minds.

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald is exquisite as the vulnerable, bullied Bella Manningham, running the gauntlet in her own house between her domineering husband Jack, played menacingly by Jonathan Firth (I was two-thirds through before I recognized him as Colin’s brother), the servants, and her own sanity.

Fitzgerald stars in the globally popular Game of Thrones and I suspect a percentage of the packed audience was there to see her.

Is her encounter with her apparent saviour, the rosy-cheeked Inspector Rough (Paul Hunter), just another example of her mind playing tricks?

No spoilers: You’ll have to go and see for yourselves.

Gaslight, a Made in Northampton production, runs at Royal & Derngate until November 7. Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk

 

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Huxley’s Brave New World is Made in Northampton

Review of Brave New World, world premiere, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, running until Saturday September 25, before touring nationally. Press night performance.
By Hilary Scott

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble.
Photography by Manuel Harlan.

IT is a compelling, and at times uncomfortable, adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World which challenges the audience at Northampton’s Royal theatre.
Those not familiar with the original 1931 text will not struggle to find familiarity in its themes, particularly pertinent to contemporary issues of the stupefying capitalism of western society juxtaposed with the violence, poverty and despair of the abandoned poor.
And hey, you get the story that spawned the Hunger Games trilogy, and even a Poldark-esque shirt-off scene from the floppy-haired William Postlethwaite as the passionate outsider, John the Savage.
The production whacks the viewer straight between the eyes – opening with a boom of music and lights and steading with the sterility of the laboratory conditions of the hatchery and conditioning centre.
For this is a world 500 years in the future where parentless babies are grown in test tubes and genetically modified to join their caste of clones to work in factories and sewers, or to be the educated Alphas and Betas of the elite.
But there are no wars or crime; this is a society controlled not by pain and fear, but of perceived happiness, conditioned from birth and powered by sex, consumerism and drugs. In this manufactured utopia, nature and art are treated with distain, while gyms and gadgets are the trophies of the elite. The citizens of this World State have everything they think they want, no family bonds, no emotional ties, an ecstasy-style drug called Soma, promiscuity and entertainment, and an indifference to death. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Happiness is essential, and those misfits who aren’t happy and promiscuous are shipped off with their unwanted emotions to remote islands.
Brave New World - James Howard, David Burnett and ensemble 102 c Manuel Harlan[1]Meanwhile, out of sight and left to rot are the majority of the population, the Savages, who live ‘naturally’ while imprisoned in vast ‘reservations, occasionally gawped at like zoo animals by the holidaying Alphas.
These two cultures come into contact with the discovery of a young man accidentally born naturally in a reservation, and brought back to see the utopian world of his elite parents. John the Savage, educated in secret by reading the complete works of Shakespeare, sees the world through the constraints of ancient, Tudor rules, and is both enticed and repulsed by the hedonism of the World State.
On press night the theatre was packed, and any early-run technical issues had clearly been fixed, as the multimedia production was visually stunning. Huge video screens hung above and around the stage adding texture and depth while the original music by These New Puritans was perfect for the adaptation. The casting is excellent, particularly for the performances by Gruffudd Glyn as the bullied misfit Bernard Marx, Samantha Pearl’s naturalistic portrayal of conformist Polly, Olivia Morgan’s confident Lenina and Postlethwaite’s conflicted savage. All ones-to-watch.

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

Also in the talented cast of ten is Abigail McKern as Linda, the bedraggled former Beta elite and John’s reluctant mother, who gives both mature gravitas and light relief to the piece, while playwright Dawn King’s adaptation cleverly morphs the dictatorial World Controller Mustapha Mond into the female Margaret Mond, played with cold indifference by Sophie Ward.
There were issues – particularly with the pacing and delivery in the first half when the necessary set-up of the story meant the audience was starting to lull into a Soma-like stupor. It just needed to be faster, more dynamic and daring, to match the visual staging. There were a few fluffed lines in the second half, but nothing too distracting and I’m sure this is a production that will gain momentum and develop as the run continues.
It is a definite go see; an excellent story and a timely reflection, albeit written in the past about the distant future, on our own present. It’s no wonder Spielberg is planning a film version.
For tickets, visit royalandderngate.co.uk or call the box office on 01604 624811
Brave New World - Gruffudd Glyn and William Postlethwaite c Manuel Harlan-123[1]

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The Science Museum’s Energy Show Live: An electrifying visit to the theatre, review by Matt Walsh

The Energy Show“Who wants to blow things up?”

That’s the question that powers the fun at the brilliant Energy Show which will be at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate from April 28-30.

Produced by the Science Museum Live, the show follows the adventures of futuristic students Annabella and Phil as they race against time to complete their presentation on the nine types of energy.

And that means blowing things up.

The safety goggles go on and the students conduct dangerously exciting experiments, such as setting fire to methane-filled soap bubbles or exploding hydrogen-filled balloons.

Mixing live action, computer graphics, science and Star Wars jokes, this is an enormously fun show which teaches some of the key principles of physics and chemistry and will be particularly useful for those studying at key stages two and three.

Be warned though, there are some big bangs in this show. The producers suggest it’s suitable for those aged seven and above.

I watched it with a science-mad four-year-old who was a little worried at some points as the audience shouted for ever bigger explosions.

But he left singing a familiar tune played by “lightning” created by a specially tuned Tesla Coil.

This is an inspirational, high-energy science show which delivers education and entertainment for both children and adults.

energy_show_tour_image_627x392pxThe Energy Show will be at Royal and Derngate from the 28th to the 30th of April, with shows as follows: Monday 7pm, Tuesday 11am, Wednesday 1.30pm.Tickets are £16, and available on 01604 624811 or by visiting http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

Matt Walsh

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Dinosaur Zoo Live, today and tomorrow(April 10-11) at Royal & Derngate

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I’m sitting in 27 degree sunshine in Spain when I suddenly remember: crikey, it’s Dinosaur Zoo time.
Not in Spain,  although up to the mountains it is a little reminiscent of the land that time forgot, but back home in Northampton
We saw this brilliant and innovative puppet/human show last year, and I’d highly recommend it. You may remember the video clip doing the rounds when one of the dinosaurs accidently fell into the (more expensive) front row. No puppets or humans were injured thankfully.
Our six and ten year olds loved it, and there’s plenty of banter from the humans on stage for the grown ups too.
Tickets are pretty limited but if you can catch it now, it’s a perfect Easter treat.
Dinosaur Zoo is at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Go to http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/Productions/201314/58873/DinosaurZoo for information and tickets.

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Review: Wind in the Willows, Royal and Derngate, Northampton 2013

Wind in the Willows, Northampton Royal, 2013, pic by Robert Day

Wind in the Willows, Northampton Royal, 2013, pic by Robert Day

“Tuh – Oh – Ah – Duh”, shouted our five-year-old during spelling practice this weekend. “TOAD! Like Mr Toad! Poop Poop!”

Clearly her visit to Royal & Derngate to watch Wind in the Willows had quite an effect. Every family discussion for the past few days has involved a reference to action from the show, including “the weasels were naughty” or “Dad wears a hat like Ratty.”

Royal & Derngate has two Christmas shows on offer each year, the traditional sparkly, generic panto in Derngate (Sleeping Beauty) and in the Royal, the Wind in the Willows, a lovingly hand-made, in-house production based on the book by Kenneth Grahame.

Before the show even started there was added drama – the original Mr Toad, Jack Edwards, had fallen down some stairs and literally broken a limb before the opening night.

Substitute Mr Toad, Gavin Spokes, had just two days to rehearse the leading amphibian role, including all lines, songs, moves, dances and props in a very physical show. But he did so (sorry Jack), with aplomb.

It might seem odd to start by commending the set and staging, but the work done by designer Sara Perks and her team really steals the show. The Royal has a small stage but the stage design with rotating turntable had grassy hillocks rolling past the riverbanks, layers and layers of Toad Hall, the Wild Wood, the Prison and Courtroom, all moving incredibly quickly and dynamically, with the cast jumping, rolling, diving and climbing over staging and props throughout. It was exhausting just watching them. And then there were the bubbles, and the real snow falling on the audience too, and the clever costumes . . . all crafted by the Royal’s talented team.

The ensemble acting as caravans, cars and horses with impeccable comedic timing only added to the action.

The WInd In The WIllows 4Ratty (Christopher Harper) and Mole (Katy Phipps) are an endearing pair from the off, trying to keep the rambunctious and spoiled Toad from harming himself and those around him as he races from one fad to another.

His downfall comes in the shape of a motorcar, cleverly ‘played’ using members of the ensemble making funny noises.

Outstanding performances from all the leads, and the children’s cast (parents, acting as a daily taxi service, I feel your pain) plus a showstealer from Jennie Dale as the Judge – what a voice!

 

Wind in the Willows, thanks to Gary Sefton’s direction, is a must-see, bringing a fusty children’s classic to life for a new generation. Tickets are available for shows until the run ends on January 5.

For tickets call the Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk

A direct hit for Wind in The Willows. Next year’s show has already been announced: it’s Merlin!

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Review – His Dark Materials, Royal Theatre, Northampton, July 2013

DSC_0138IT might have been the hottest day of the year outside, but the audience at Northampton’s Royal Theatre were enjoying something very cool on stage in the form of His Dark Materials – based on the brilliant trilogy of books by Phillip Pullman.

This was not a conventional night for theatre-goers. The evening performance on Saturday was Part 2, and surely everyone there had been to Part 1 either earlier in the day. (Or earlier in the week). So if you’d booked the Saturday it was a marathon session of viewing starting at 2.30, breaking at 5-ish and back for Part 2 at 7.30. If you hadn’t read the books or at least seen the DVD of the Golden Compass, the shows could have been baffling to follow too, as the books have detailed plots.

The show, with amazing puppets and puppeteers, an incredible set and 50 performers, was also entirely cast with under 21-year-olds – the companies of Royal & Derngate’s contemporary and classic theatre schools.

You’d hardly have known. The performances, especially of lead Demi Rixon as Lyra, tirelessly tearing around the stage as her character does in the books. Other notables were Ryan Leder’s armoured bear Iorek Byrinson and the witch Serafina Pekkala (Emma Cranston). Credible performances too from Will (Chris Normington), Mrs Coulter (Erica Tomlin), Lord Asriel (Luke Nunn) and the scene stealing Angels.

There were fights, huge scenes with Les Miserables-sized casts on stage at once, and it flowed beautifully. The daemons, played throughout by cast members visibly moving and voicing these exquisite puppets, were a touch of genius.DSC_0139 You have to hand it to the teens who were working the puppets, often on hands and knees or stooping for long periods – certainly youngsters were going to do this far better than adults with rickety joints.

There were the expected issues with such a huge cast of nervous new teen performers, rather too much mumbling throughout from some characters meant dialogue was hard to hear in places (voice training and projection possibly tricky with so many performers). But the strength of direction (Natalie Diddams and Chris Gorry certainly deserved the standing ovation as much as the actors) and the tech and staging professionals helped this be so much more than an amateur production.

A gamble by Royal & Derngate to stage such a huge production? It was truly brave and ambitious, and they totally pulled it off.

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