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

Giving youth a stage

Coventry Schools' Young Entertainer of the year

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

Is it a good thing to run competitions in the art of entertainment for young people still at school? Well, they are graded for just about everything else, and even attainment in sport is measured, so attainments vary and comparisons are made.

Years ago – I dare say they still exist – I can remember inter-school tussles for poetry and even Latin verse reading. So why not give young entertainers a go: in fact, give them the stage?

All credit, then, to the Rotary Club of Coventry, known for supporting the city’s youth in a range of practical and technical ways, for setting up an event, Coventry Schools’ Young Entertainer of the year, which drew six schools at its inaugural event in 2010 and has now raised this to 20.

In fact I didn’t notice many (perhaps one or two) absentees among secondary schools. In the 2014 jamboree, held at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre main auditorium – these youngsters had to have the nerve to face a large packed audience; there were few, if any, duds. They all rolled up their sleeves, muscled in and delivered some, in many cases, remarkable talent.      

If some aspects looked a bit wobbly, they were the grown ups’, not the child performers. Host/radio broadcaster Brody Swain- obviously those in authority love him – made a bit of a tit of himself, setting (I suggest) precisely the wrong tone, talking down and, albeit unintentionally, patronising those taking part and in effect the whole audience. If I were a young performer hanging on the judges’ every word, I would want more serious criticism, not the worst kind of unctuous piffle disguised as ‘encouragement’ that oozes out of TV assessors and – well, not quite all of the four judges.

There were errors in key parts of the administration and stagecraft, of which more later. Hence the event was needlessly diminished, and the obsession with Simon Cowell and his formats only made it worse. Coventry should have the courage to do things its own way.

2013 Coventry Schools' Young Entertainer winner - comedian Fletcher Ransberry, from Blue Coat School

 It  is an inspired idea to use as a warm-up last year’s winner, better by far than any of the cheerful, quite pleasing 2014 crop. This was Fletcher Ransberry, a 14 year old comedian-cum-magician, hilariously accident-prone yet managing Houdini-like to extricate himself from one disaster after another (rope tricks a specialty). This young man’s savoir-faire, his quick thinking. his gift for engaging an audience and indeed involving them, haplessly (even the Lord Mayor became a victim), in his act reveal an intelligence and sheer craft way beyond his years. Is he an inveterate watcher of old videos? He can embrace Tommy Cooper or stand-up Frankie Howerd (‘I’ll do the jokes’), Eric Morecambe or Eric Sykes effortlessly. But not by mere parody: his act, wondrously designed and even more vitally enacted, is his own.

In a way, at a heartwarmingly lanky 14, he’s already a classic. With his beguiling manner, cracking voice (that will change, and he will have to work out how to make amends by other means) and comically nervy fidgeting, his gift for footling mock-‘impressions’, he has a winning manner. His timing is to die for. His asides (‘It’s my party, this script’, ‘The Health and Safety people are going to go crazy’, ‘Sorry, miss, stop it’, ‘This isn’t the joke’; ‘Sorry, sir, I may land on you’), and audience interplay (selecting victims and being merciless with them) all point to a fruitful future for this cheeky-cum-polite young lad. TV beckons, surely.

But what of this year’s turnout? The judges, for all their periodic flannel, reached I thought a thoroughly sensible decision. As its top three it placed the Woodlands (now an Academy) first, with a very presentable, strong and capable young rock band, The Prospects, who are, I would think, just that. It was the era of early 60s ‘high voltage’ or high energy rock this six year old band most obviously evoked.

They got together in their very early teens, for they are still pretty youthful. But this was not just a display of big noise teen testosterone: the guitar playing was sophisticated, and the lead singer lucid as well as a good looker. They have character. The antics, though fun, are neither here nor there: it’s their music that counts, and their take on pre-Beatle as well as post-Stones and Kinks delivery was attractive and impressive.

The four judges observed on their comfortable professionalism, energy, stage presence. Their six years together indeed shows in their marked polish. But the most observant was solo vocalist Sandra Godley, the judge who urged them to ‘make themselves a bit different; vary the harmonies, for instance.’ This was the kind of constructive criticism that judges should be delivering amid quite naturally, supportive praise; it was welcome. My variant on that would be that I’d like to hear them play some of their own stuff.

The Prospects, a rock band  from The Woodlands Academy, who picked up the Coventry Schools' Young Entertainer 2014 first prize

A King Henry VIII boy, who could easily have won it (the judges’ deliberations were long) took second place. Richard Fairlie is a guitar-cum-vocalist (and a member of the National Youth Choir into the bargain) with a genuine poignancy to his singing. His serious approach has nothing yuck about it: the counterpointing of voice and instrument was sophisticated and attractive. The beauty of his soft, mellow voice was notable; his words were good, the volume particularly well judged. His modest stance conjured, as the judges rightly observed, a real and tangible atmosphere: such that they urged him to ‘keep going’. And so he should.

The third prize (all three, incidentally, went to groups from the first half) was mopped up by Blue Coat School (a second for them, as Ransberry too – perhaps his stage name should be Raspberry - is a Blue Coat boy), who put on one of the two partially comic, narrative sequences of dance and music (Grace Academy were the other). The text was ‘Runaway Baby’, by Bruno Mars, in their own trumpet, alto saxophone, three guitar and drums arrangement. In particular, Blue Coat’s young lead singers, Jessica Weale and Jonathan Thorne, came up with an attractive act, the interplay between the pair ‘singing off’ one another feisty and entertaining. Two abrupt cut-offs in mid text proved dramatically powerful. Confident, well-rehearsed, it had the professional element needed; the judges’ decision to put it third would not be criticised by me.  

Was the elevation of these three undue? One rather eminent punter told me he was very impressed with a quintet of girl singers from Tile Hill Wood school, who - known as a ‘Pop Choir’ - offered ‘The Rose’, a number made familiar by Bette Midler: arguably the most classical of the evening’s offerings. Their tuning, especially the two altos, was spot on, their sustaining of a slow melody was magnificent, and the judges praised their harmonies (tuning again), blend, posture (the triangular look with largest in the middle, certainly appealed) and strong finish.

Another around me queried why there was not a greater range of acts overall: a violinist, say, or straight drama, or a full bodied school choir (one instrumentalist, young Hazel Baradina from Cardinal Wiseman – one of Coventry’s Catholic secondary schools – came up with a diverting though not especially riveting piano and voice offering, her take on the Animals and Eric Burden’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’. What was nice was that she has some oomph (a big voice, certainly); like so many of the young performers, she was quite unfazed about trying out her act on a large audience: a key quality of the aspiring young performer.

Blue Coat School were among the prizes - with vocalists Jessica Weale and Jonathan Thorne effortlessly stealing the show

Some might have plumped for Jack Gardner, a (surprisingly) 15 year old from Ernesford Grange who showed many of the skills of a performer in Musicals – quietly heaving with sobbing emotion, for instance, which had some of the judges cooing exaggeratedly about his ‘stage presence’ and ‘attention-grabbing stance’  – although that was his strength and his weakness. He sang one of the weepier numbers from the Madam Butterfly - based Miss Saigon. The voice – quite a potent, striking tenor, has potential – and is actually beautiful, and will benefit from careful further teaching and  developing. ‘You believed, so we did too’, said one judge. Well, yes, up to a point. Gardner may well go places in his chosen pursuit. Jason Dickson-Carvell, a young year 10 baritone from Westwood Academy, was mysteriously praised for a stage presence (‘the acting was spot on’; ‘You really drew everyone in’) that was all but absent, but the voice has appeal and he uses it stylishly  (not perhaps the judges’ a ‘great voice), so that he evinced – perhaps – even greater potential. Not that the abysmal sound system helped him one iota.

Another vocal effort involved quasi-comic twosome in which an outwardly presentable but in fact nasal and screechy - hence increasingly unimpressive - girl singer, Georgia Kelsey, was matched and then overtaken (in Bablake’s contribution) by a runaway piano cadenza from Aron Sood. Funny, but only mildly so. A duo from Stoke Park School took things more seriously, but impacted not much more. Nor did Laura Warwick, a sixth former from Whitley (also now an Academy) grab one’s vote with a not a little out of tune vocal offering, also from a Musical; yet – all credit – she picked up a Special Recognition Award from the judges.

Far more impressive and alluring was Barr’s Hill girl singer Sarah Emmanuel, who had more presence than either of the boys and a genuine searing musicality that might have hoist her to, say, the top four. There was a pathos, a spiritual feel, which perhaps owed something to her idols, including Whitney Houston and (paradoxically) Amy Winehouse. The judges admired the lovely, alluring quality of her voice, her relaxed stage presence and sincerity, and the quality of her a cappella (unaccompanied) singing. ‘You will be a professional singer’, urged Sandra Godley. And she, arguably, knows.  

What of the other bands? Lyng Hall produced an appealing boy band foursome, Route 13, with a nicely agreeable lead singer, arguably with potential, and competent instrumentals, but their rather simplistic material – it felt a bit like a Monty Python or Rowan Atkinson pop ‘spoof’ - not a match on the swaggering, James Dean-evoking Woodlands quartet. It was Cardinal Newman School who with their folk group Pecan Grove (mandolin, ukulele, banjo as well as guitar) showed a feel for their genre and sense of repertoire.

Cheerful too were One Step Closer, a band from Caludon Castle, raising money for the local hospital’s neonatal baby care unit. There was no special pleading here: their music (their own track, ‘Someone’) was perfectly acceptable in its own right. Two girl soloists proved more than good; unfortunately the boy was almost insistently out of tune. The judges praised their multitasking and adeptness of instruments, and – a good word – their onstage ‘respect’ for one another. They needed, however, to ‘own the stage’ rather more – again, a constructive piece of criticism.

As if to prove the point, they were eclipsed, for sheer feistiness, verve and unpredictability, near the end (see below) by a band from Finham Park School which had that golden quality - the one Fletcher Ransberry’s comedy has in droves – originality.


What of the larger ensembles? The legendary Pattinsons School of Dance came up with a sequence which, if it lacked something in invention, was as one might expect handsomely choreographed, and particularly skilled at highlighting individuals within the group. The judges admired the team effort and the preparedness: everyone patently knew what to do. They also thought the singing ‘lovely’. Well, it was OK.

President Kennedy’s all-ages dance fusion was much cleverer in its choreography, and some visual detail (a line whose members peel off one by one) excelled. But despite useful touches and a spirited young Sikh drummer in the band, it never quite hit the ‘memorable’ category. More promising than either was Coundon Court’s ‘dance in the dark’, based on a range of songs and with its neon-lit quasi-creatures quite atmospheric. But it too failed to hit the ‘grab you’ button; the continuous introduction of new dancers tended needlessly to slow the act, to disadvantage. One lone boy, to his credit, was easily one of the best movers of the evening; Kennedy’s younger age groups actually shone more.

I would have been tempted to shower consolation awards on six girls from Foxford, whose dance steps and gestures seemed wholly original, and teasing, and who performed with something like the slick awareness of a Michael Jackson. They used the space up fully, constantly surprising us, starting an idea then whipping away from it midstream, and with good enough coordination to put them in the top bracket. But soon afterwards came Finham Park, with a quirky band act that could easily have battled to the top too, The ensemble is now year 9, they started with a rather delicious shambolic look, mainly thanks to their lead singer Charlie Fellow, who you might think was bored with the whole gig, but who leaps into action and proves to be a winner.  

Grace Academy wound up, and their teasing acted sequence – a kind of witty sketch, at least showed what those prepared to be original could do. But each aspect of their show was ropy – dance, acting, whatever; they seemed later on not to be confident enough in what they were doing, even though they actually started rather well.  One enjoyed them for their nerve and cheek; boys and girls both entered successfully into the spirit.

There was so much good about this evening, and at least the overall concept, that it seemed fairer to leave complaints till the end. I’ve mentioned my dislike of the down-market hosting, and what looked like an ill-prepared presentation on his part – the precise reverse of those he was supposed to be introducing. The judges got an awful lot right, even if their laudable desire that ‘all should feel good’ – perhaps I am equally at fault here - led to some TV-quality claptrap.

Much more important was the appalling standard of the sound system. What on earth did a location like the Belgrade think it was doing accepting this kind of thin, bleating quality that patently damaged several of the acts? Was the sound system in house? Or imported? Either way, theatre or promoters, a virtual disaster. The lights in many instances – though not all (Coundon Court, notably) – varied in quality; sometimes picking out an act cleverly, sometimes more bland and basic.

The programme listings were somewhat random. Clearly they relied on information submitted, but a format is needed so that the precise song(s) tendered are listed, the name of the group, and other basic information. Much of this information could be prised out, but the ‘let it all hang out’ approach is poor and, I suggest, not up to Rotary standards.

There was a serious omission in the various credits at the end, issued by Lord Mayor, Round Table and so on. Someone should have praised the teachers who prepared all this work. It was doubtless a mistake that they were omitted – these things happen – but our ubiquitous compère might have earned himself a few brownie points by spotting this and remembering   

Roderic Dunnett

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