Bringing a production of any description to Edinburgh is a major undertaking, and doing so with a young cast like that in Norfolk Youth Music Theatre’s production of The Battle of Boat is even more to be admired – and this is the 13th of NYMT’s productions to be seen at the Fringe. Of course, all that effort is without point if the young cast are not up to it, but this was a well-rehearsed, talented company who were worth 2 hours of anyone’s time.
Sadly, that 2 hours running time may be part of the reason for the small audience at the performance we attended, together with the choice of a new musical which won’t be known to audiences. It is, however, a much better choice for a youth group than many more well-known pieces as it was written for the National Youth Music Theatre and is well-suited to young people’s voices. What’s more, all the characters are young people too, giving the cast the chance to really tackle some dramatic scenes.
In the lead role, although not seen much when he went off to war in the second act, Harry Smith gave a well-rounded and beautifully sung account of William Miller. As his sister, Julia Lelewel was another strong singer and committed actor. Some key roles were taken by younger members of the company, with Shane Davenport and Orson Chitty (an engaging singer) more than matching the older members of the company, and Charlie Windle anchoring the whole performance in the difficult role of Beagle, hardly offstage throughout. He can also keep acting when he sings, not an easy task, and he brought a truthfulness to the burial of his mouse which could have easily been overdone.
Other actors who made their mark included Mabel White as a spirited schoolgirl, Megan Service as the girl left behind and Louis Miller in a quietly understated performance with some nice touches as loner Felix. Singing throughout was of a high standard and this piece, by Jenna Donnelly and Ethan Lewis Maltby, provided the cast with a range of challenges to meet.
In Gripper’s gang the level of menace was well maintained, with two of the female members, Megan Howlett and Tilly Chitty, particularly chilling in spoken and sung sections. As Gripper, Ryan Davenport gave a mature and convincing account of a young man troubled by his father’s refusal to fight, menacing and yet vulnerable, and was also well up to the musical demands of the role.
The whole ensemble needed a much bigger stage of course but the small space available was well used, with sections like the church and schoolroom and the voyage in the boat very effectively staged by Director and MD Adrian Connell.
The only major problem in the production were the recurring sound issues, although the cast battled through and kept going. Indeed, when they occasionally had to sing without mics, it was clear that many of them have strong voices and really did not need such extensive amplification, especially in a small venue and even with recorded music. The problem with such mics is that they are not only visually obtrusive with wires spoiling the effect of carefully chosen costumes, but impossible for the audience to ignore when they howl or cut out. Many productions in small venues at the Fringe choose not to use microphones and are often all the better for it. Of course, the audience has to listen more carefully, but with a thoughtful piece like this, that is totally appropriate.
However, this cast were not thrown by sound issues or anything else; they gave it their all and deserve much larger audiences for the rest of the run.