Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

cohen and dodger

Esther Roden as Soloman Cohen with his young protégé Dodger, played by Emily Beaton. Pictures: Roy Palmer


Hall Green Youth Theatre


Terry Pratchett had a skill in taking books, characters or situations we all know and giving them his own twist to set them in his fantasy Discworld or some other location where we end up with a sort of familiarity but one seen through a fog.

Thus we have Dodger, adapted by Stephen Briggs, from Pratchett’s 2012 novel of the same name which centres on characters such as Dodger himself, who is artful in all but name, and a writer and journalist on The Morning Chronicle, a certain Charles Dickens, all set in a Victorian London of around 1830.

Pratchett also scatters other real characters through the tale with the likes of Sir Robert Peel, a young up and coming MP Ben Disraeli, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette and Henry Mayhew.

The novel was dedicated to Mayhew, incidentally, who, like Dickens, was a journalist on The Morning Chronicle, and also a social reformer. He was a co-founder of the late lamented Punch and his series of newspaper articles was collected and published as the influential London Labour and the London Poor, which drew attention to the plight of those at the bottom end of a society living in what was then the world’s richest city.

Dickens and Dodger

Siblings in the spotlight: Emily Beaton as Dodger with brother Daniel Robert Beaton as Charles Dickens

Another real character was Angela Burdett-Coutts, a well-known philanthropist of the age, the daughter of a baronet, whose maternal grandfather was banker Thomas Coutts.

Add all the other characters from minor German princes, ladies of the night and Jewish tailors and watchmakers and the play has a population of 56, which rivals audience numbers in the intimate confines of the studio, so directors Roy Palmer and Daniel Robert Beaton have brought it down to a more manageable (a relative term) cast of 25 with plenty of doubling, trebling, and, in one case, quintupling up.

They have also continued with the policy of seeding the line up with some adults, first started in last year’s Romeo and Juliet, and not worrying to much about gender, with girls in male parts if necessary.

Thus we have Esther Roden doing a fine job as Jewish craftsman Solomon Cohen, Dodger’s kindly mentor, with a gentle accent and laboured walk, and Jack Heath changing accents and clothes at the drop of a topper, as Disraeli, a dodgy German Prince and the benevolent Mayhew, while Richard Scott weighs in as both engineer Balzalgette and the unfortunate Sweeney Todd, here suffering from battlefield induced PTSD rather than his more usual involvement as a supplier in the pie production business.

Daniel Robert Beaton plays Mr Charlie, Dickens to you and me, with the air of a man with his finger on the pulse, making notes for future novels as he goes along, and making it a family affair, his sister Emily Beaton does a fine job as Dodger, giving us a streetwise tosher – a tosher being someone who searches the sewers, by hand, looking for lost valuables or anything with value.

We first come across Dodger when he rescues a young woman called Simplicity – we never do find out her real name – as she is attacked by a pair of thugs. Abigail Kaur-Bennett gives us a mix of innocence and shyness as the victim who is taken in first by Mayhew, and, when it is discovered she is in danger again, moved to the home of Burdett-Coutts, a role played confidently by Charlotte Crowe, who is also Mrs Mayhew just to confuse Simplicity.

Katie Driver is a youth theatre regular and here plays three roles including a servant and a lady of the night with each role enhanced by her lovely clear voice and enunciation, every word always clear and precise.

Simplicity for Dodger

Abigail Kaur-Bennett as Simplicity with Dodger

Jess Donnelly appears as both a doctor and Queen Victoria while Megan Matthews is Mary Go Round and the sinister assassin, the Outlander; Roseann Smith is a Spymaster and a coroner as well as a maid while Emily Smith and Jack Marsh add seven characters to the population.

And like all the doubled-up parts, apart from physical similarities, which are hard to disguise without extensive make up and costume changes, the actors managed to give their different characters different personalities, making the cast look bigger than it is.

The whole production is enhanced by excellent period costumes which is down to Jean Wilde, Louise Price, Julie King and Claire Ellinor - Julie King, incidentally, along with Jack Heath, is also an assistant director.

The studio does not lend itself to elaborate settings or changes and Roy Palmer has used a collection of wooden blocks and a stage-wide platform to create sewers, streets, the Houses of Parliament, indeed half of Victorian London by little more than lighting and a few simple props.

The story, with a hint of scandal leading to an international incident, with the wife of a minor German prince escaping to England from his cruelty and violence has a maiden in distress at the hands of a nasty foreigner - which is all fine fare for a Victoria melodrama. . The diplomatic feelers suggest that she needs to be returned to the Fatherland to prevent an early start to World War I which . . . might just be a bit far fetched - in fact, let’s be honest, it's a lot, far-fetched.

But if you go along with the storyline the cast do a fine job of keeping the tale on track with plenty of scenes and characters to deal with. They keep up a decent pace, bring a nice touch of sinister or violence when necessary and manage to produce an entertaining evening which gave a score of youngsters a chance to take part – which surely is what a community youth theatre is about.

A mention too for Daniel Ashford’s sound design, the dripping water in the sewers being a nice touch while Paul Hartop’s lighting helped create atmosphere and divide the stage to highlight scenes, and the smoke gave a nice, moody Victorian London from time to time. To 07-10-17.

Roger Clarke


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