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The Review: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre – Pinocchio

The Review: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre – Pinocchio

Image: Lewis Renninson and company in CFYT’s Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Society/Company: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre
Production: Pinocchio
Credits: Adapted by Anna Ledwich. Music by Tom Brady. From the original novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester West Sussex
Performance Date: 22 Dec 2020 | Reviewer: Susan Elkin | Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

It has long been my contention that Chichester Festival Theatre has one of the finest youth theatres in the country and this show proves it – again.


CFT knows how good it is too which is why it confidently turns the theatre over to the ever-talented Dale Rooks and her young performers every Christmas and allows them to stage the venue’s Christmas show with all the production values any other CFT show would get.

Sixty performers (there are two teams) are selected by audition from the youth theatre’s eight hundred members and what a professional job they do with Anna Ledwich’s fresh, affirmative script. This take on Pinocchio focuses on personal integrity and development. Like every child in the world this puppet boy makes a lot of mistakes but he learns from them and, eventually, comes through with flying colours when presented with the ultimate challenge. And Ledwich even works in some observations about marine pollution without labouring the point too much.

Archie Elliot is delightful as Pinocchio, wobbling as he turns human, learning to speak, communicating in bubbles when he’s under the sea and dancing when he’s turned into a donkey – well, exactly as a donkey would, but he does it with neat grace.

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Alfie Ayling’s Geppetto is warmly convincing and Meg Bewley is very strong as the Fairy who watches over Pinocchio from a distance. Annalise Bradbury is feisty as the exasperated Cricket who accompanies Pinocchio and acts as his usually ignored conscience. And I liked Ella O’Keefe’s powerful performance as Madam Silversaw.

The set is based on an old farm cart which revolves to reveal different scenes. It works well because it provides a small stage in the middle of the playing space and has a balcony on top so at times the action is on three levels. With set design by Simon Higlet and costume by Ryan Dawson Laight, the very commendable policy decision for this show was to work entirely with recycled materials. Thus fabrics were accessed from charity shops and re-dyed and the farm cart is just that. And it all looks terrific.

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A show of this sort stands or falls on its ensemble work and this one more than stands. Pinocchio is an episodic piece (Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio is a series of short stories).

And that’s ideal for youth theatre because you can use different performers in different scenes and everyone has something to do. The shellfish scene is great fun as is the finale when Pinocchio and Geppetto finally get home and set about building a roundabout – which is enacted below the workshop by an ensemble group.

Tom Brady’s music is tunefully full of earworms and ably played by a six-piece band above the stage with Colin Billing as MD and playing keys. Especially memorable is the very jazzy rhythmic song sung by the Fox and the Cat, with the saxophone weaving slithery musical magic, as they dupe Pinocchio and steal his money.

And all that has been achieved in safety, observing restrictions and practising social distancing in rehearsal as well as onstage. When two characters really have to hug they mime it – and it works. Well done, all.

At the last minute I decided that perhaps, even for work, I should not drive seventy miles from my London (Tier 4) home to see this show in Tier 2 as I’d planned – so I watched the livestream from home.

But oh, how when I saw and heard the audience and the excitement of live theatre, I wished I were there with them. Next year I hope…

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“I think this production of Our Country’s Good is the best non-professional ‘straight’ play I have ever seen.”

Susan Elkin from her 2018 review of Sedos’s non-professional production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play at the Bridewell Theatre in London.

Photo: Sedos Photos (Flickr)

If amateur (or ‘community’ or ‘non-professional’) actors and companies want to be taken seriously and afforded professional respect then they really do have to stop being precious about criticism.

If amateur (or ‘community’ or ‘non-professional’) actors and companies want to be taken seriously and afforded professional respect then they really do have to stop being precious about criticism.
f you stand on a stage and act, sing or dance, people are going to comment on your performance. And it won’t always be kind – or informed, or tactful or sympathetic or understanding.

That, I’m afraid, is a fact of life whether you’re a young child in a school play, a seasoned RSC actor or anything in between. It might be a chance remark, a comment by a friend or relation or a formal review on a website or in a print publication. It all involves people observing you and your show and saying what they think. And it will happen whether you like it or not.

This magazine is unique in that it reviews shows of all types right across the amateur/professional spectrum. And as a member of the Sardines review team, I write dozens and dozens of them every year. In many cases we are invited in and welcomed warmly. On the other hand sometimes I contact a company or its press person along the lines of: “Hey, I’d really like to review your show,” which usually results in delight that someone with a long professional reviewing portfolio is showing an interest.

Just occasionally, however, the response will be, for example, “No no, this is my/our hobby. We don’t want anyone criticising what we do, thank you.” Another reaction I’ve heard more than once is: “Oh, no thank you. We work with children and young people. We have to protect them from criticism. It wouldn’t be fair to expose them.”

Then there are vocational training establishments – purporting to prepare people for eventual professional work as opposed to running youth theatre – which produce shows. It’s pretty obvious to me that anyone who wants to make a career out of performance simply needs to get used to criticism – formal or informal – as soon as possible. At drama school, for example.

Yes, of course I know that people who commit themselves to a life of publicly pretending to be someone (or something) else are often quite vulnerable. The industry has a significantly higher incidence of mental health issues than most other fields of work and drama schools have a major duty to care for their students.

Nonetheless they also have to prepare them for the world they want to work in and that, by definition, includes facing public scrutiny.

I used to review a lot of student shows both for Sardines and for other publications. Increasingly more and more schools are now telling me, and the editor of Sardines, that although they’re happy to welcome me, or any other interested person from the magazine as a guest, they don’t want anything written about the shows.

It wouldn’t be right, I was told recently, for some students to get reviewed while others aren’t – well, excuse me, but that’s exactly what will happen all the time the moment they graduate. Other schools have said that because these students are not yet fully trained actors they need to be protected – by implication from predatory critics like me. Well, sorry, but are they training actors or snowflakes?

In practice, this attitude simply means that I don’t see the show. I am a professional writer with a very congested diary. I simply can’t afford the time to pop along to see a student or other non-pro show for fun. If I can’t get copy out of it then there’s no reason for my being there. And that means the students or amateur actors are denied the impartial feedback which might help to build confidence or help their CVs.

For the record I have never “rubbished” a student actor in my life. I’m pretty gentle with hobby amateur actors too. I come from a teaching background and I’m programmed to be encouraging and supportive. All I’ve ever done is to praise the really outstanding cast members and say nothing about the ones who shine less brightly. At the same time, if I possibly can, I always make positive remarks about the production in general. I’m certainly never going to write “Jasmine Whatever is appallingly weak as Ophelia and I doubt that we’ll see her doing much professional work,” or anything remotely like it.

Yet, I was told recently by one Famous Name school that it seeks to manage publicity for its students so that it’s fully inclusive which, apparently, means that nobody gets attention which others don’t. Right – as will the professional companies these students will, one hopes, soon be working for when they invite in critics? Of course not. Critics will praise what they like and damn what they don’t. Welcome to the real world.

Now, let me be clear. It isn’t all schools which take this misguided line. I reviewed Red Velvet at the enlightened Guildhall School of Music and Drama earlier this term and very good it was too. And I continue to cover shows at, for example, Rose Bruford, theMTA and Fourth Monkey whenever I can but the list seems to shrink every week.

I am also delighted – like the rest of my colleagues in the Sardines team – to review a large number of local groups, associations and societies who produce a huge range of enjoyable work. It is utterly astonishing what a disparate but enthusiastic and well-directed group of people can achieve after work on, say Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

I suspect that the ones who spurn even the gentlest of formal criticism aren’t trying hard enough and are actually ashamed of their lacklustre efforts. I’m glad they’re in the minority.

The Tide is Turning (Summer School)

I think about auditions a lot. I know how difficult it is for school students, often lacking any sort of professional advice, to audition effectively for drama school. So they fail – repeatedly and it may not be for lack of talent or ability. And on top of that they have to pay audition fees. The hurdles, for some, must feel insurmountable.

Two pieces of good news (well, three actually) on the auditions front have crossed my desk this week.

First I learned that Dorset School of Acting is teaming up with The Actors Centre in Covent Garden to run a one-week how-to-audition course in August (5 – 9 inclusive). It costs £400 but that’s a fraction of the price of a one-year foundation course to get the same information. And Dorset School of Acting has an excellent track record in getting students into drama schools including. RADA, LAMDA, RCSSD, RBC, BOVTS, E15, ALRA, GSA, RCS, LIPA, Italia Conti and Arts Ed. James Bowden and his colleagues really know what they’re talking about.

Second there was a very welcome announcement that Leeds College of Music is dropping audition fees for all its courses. Well, we need a few colleges to take this line and perhaps others will follow suit. Some of the big colleges, including drama schools and music conservatoires, are making large sums of money from audition fees and it’s a scandal.

When I tweeted my approval of the Leeds College of Music decision, Mark Griffin, Head of Humanities and Drama at St Mary’s University Twickenham, contacted me – and this is the third bit of good news – to say that all his auditionees receive a full audition process with panel, feedback and group workshop. “We see four hundred actors a year for seventy places. We’ve never charged audition fees.” Mark tells me. “It [charging fees] goes against our commitment to inclusivity and nurturing talent regardless of background.”

So you see: It can be done. Nearly every other provider of vocational training in the land,
please note!