Echo Youth Theatre (EYT) is a new venture launched in December 2017 to offer theatre opportunities and education to local youngsters. It is based in the impressive facilities of the OPEN Youth Trust in the former Barclays Bank hall.
Under the artistic direction of Dan Rayner EYT have set themselves an ambitious challenge to produce the musical version of the Francis Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess. With a cast of twenty three on stage and twenty six separate musical numbers it is a hefty work, particularly for a cast of school age rising stars.
This musical switches continents for the background story of young Sara Crewe, the star of this show. Burnett set her in India, but this version sees Sara and her father Captain Crewe (Ethan Kemp-Walker) living in Africa and imbued with African colour and culture. Amber Keeley is the confident and kind Sara, who faces almost every challenge with equanimity and good humour.
Sara’s father has a mission to set up trade links in Timbuktu, so he dispatches a reluctant Sara off to Miss Minchin’s school in cold grey England. She arrives there with fancy clothes and fine possessions but soon clashes with the mean spirited and jealous Minchin (Posy O’Rourke) while making friends with the ‘lower orders’ like the orphan maid Becky (Priya Hunter) and the girls who are bullied by others.
Sara enjoys an exalted status with Miss Minchin until word arrives that Captain Crewe has died intestate while the girls are in the midst of a lavish party to celebrate Sara’s birthday. The party is disbanded and Sara is stripped of her possessions and banished to the attic and servile slavery to Miss Minchin.
Many scenes take place in Sara’s African home, with her father, surrogate mother Aljana (Julia Lelewel) and spiritual brother Pasko (Diogo Antonio), who both possess fine singing voices. Sara never believes that her father has really died, remaining hopeful of being re-united and returning to her African home.
This is a moral tale slightly adjusted to modern tastes, but still with a clear message about how we should all treat each other, regardless of class, privilege and background. It looks at the subjugation of the youthful spirit, a subject as relevant as ever as we watch children trotting off to their academy schools in forced identikit uniforms. Sara is fuelled by a powerful imagination that helps her dream her way through all the challenges and adversities thrown at her. She knows she is not really a princess, but she also knows that she really can be if she chooses to.
Every member of the on stage cast of this show gives it their best and they have all clearly learned the art of good stagecraft, but one or two stand out for me. Priya Hunter is delightful in the difficult role of the Cockney orphan maid Becky, and Lilly Hingham is distinctive as Lottie, the youngest of Sara’s friends at school. Julia Lelewel gives a strong and confident performance as Aljana. Ethan Kemp-Walker gives a good account as Captain Crewe mastering some very tricky singing with a hint of the Gilbert and Sullivan ‘patter songs’ in his dexterity. Diogo Antonio seems a shy stage presence until he sings, when he holds the audience spellbound with a fine voice. Posy O’Rourke gave us a thoroughly enjoyable ‘baddie’ as Miss Minchin. But the undoubted star of the show, on stage almost throughout is Amber Keeley in the central role of Sara Crewe. Her singing is very good, and she portrays the complex character of Sara with an easy elegance. She binds the whole show together and achieves something very difficult, successfully portraying a teenage girl yet keeping us all on her side through trials and tribulations.
The world of theatre, particularly musical theatre, is very competitive these days and their are many very talented young performers available for every single stage role. The discipline and skills that this cast have developed in the Echo Youth Theatre suggest to me that we are very likely to see one or two of these youngsters on stage for years to come. My niggles with the show are minor – the sound at the start was far too loud, and I feel that more use could have been made of the depth of the stage for this large cast. But these fade when the show is seen as a whole, it is a joyous, confident and lively presentation of a life-affirming tale that focuses on the group most ignored in our society today – children. The cast bring us a diverse range of characters from African rulers to Queen Victoria and some very believable London schoolgirls, all bound together by some great songs and music. Norwich is a city rich in culture and performing arts and this new offering is one of the most enjoyable shows you will find in the city – don’t miss it!
© Julian Swainson 2018
A Little Princess
OPEN, Bank Plain, Norwich
Thursday 5th – Saturday 7th April 2018, 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm matinees on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th April.
Tickets – £15 Adults / £10 under-18s
Buy tickets: www.opennorwich.org.uk
Echo Youth Theatre – www.echoyouththeatre.co.uk
See our earlier article about this show here: http://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/east-anglian-premiere-of-heart-warming-musical-in-norwich/