Music: David Nield
Director: Jeremy James Taylor
Musical Supervisor: John Pearson
Musical Director: Nicholas Chave
Choreographer: Matthew Hawksworth
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree
Founded in 1976, and here in combination with the charity Creative Youth, the National Youth Music Theatre’s contribution to this year’s International Youth Arts Festival is The Ragged Child. Think Oliver Twist Meets Orphan Annie and you have the subject matter for this production. The play is less of a story and more of a series of vignettes of the terrible conditions endured by many of the city poor of the English population even at the height of Victorian prosperity
Set in 1851, the year of The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, where all that was modern and magnificent was being celebrated, it is hard to credit that children like Joe and Annie Cooper were suffering such dreadful deprivations of nutrition, education and health care. We are wrong to congratulate ourselves that such conditions have no part in our modern world. One has only to think of the slums of Calcutta and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to realise that the war is not over yet. Not even in our own country where the charity Kids Company estimates that 350,000 children in London alone live in a state of malnutrition brought on by poverty.
Christopher Richardson’s set of simple tables and benches becomes variously a court room, a lodging house, a ship, a boxing booth and anything else that might be required in passing simply by moving the furniture. David Nield uses many familiar tunes for his songs and choruses. Ranging from “Jesus bids me shine with a clear, pure light” to several tunes with less salubrious connotations, bringing smiles of familiarity to many lips in the audience. A bonus was having, in addition to the traditional orchestra pitmusicians (also all under 23), a band of “strolling players,” members of the cast, who performed on stage as the action was taking place.
Under the auspices of such luminaries as Lord Shaftesbury and the lesser known but no less worthy John Pound of Portsmouth, a small start was made on improvements on all these fronts. The fact that the evening takes us through the various facets of Joe and Annie’s horrendous lives does not diminish the admiration which this vibrant company engenders. The sight and sound of around fifty enthusiastic players aged between 11 and 23 giving of their all in song, dance and sheer joie de vivre cannot be anything but exhilarating.
Runs: until 27th July and on 29th July at The Great Hall, The Leys School, Cambridge.