Squeezed in the midst of exams, the Junior Play is annually charged with lifting everyone’s spirits and Nikki Lockwood’s exceptional production of ‘Beasts and Beauties’ (by Carol Ann Duffy; adapted by Melly Still and Tim Supple) certainly did not disappoint. It is a collection of six short fairy tales from around Europe – some familiar, some macabre and some of glorious silliness. The Director, ably helped by her assistant director Izzie Simpkin (LVI, West; who also composed the song in ‘The Juniper Tree’) achieved a rare feat: a crowd-pleasing spectacular that also featured genuinely impressive technical work by her actors.

The storytelling was accompanied throughout by disciplined, choreographed and focused movement by the young cast and the staging was inventive and original, making excellent use of the VCT’s open thrust stage. We saw the production as if through the eyes of a small girl played by Megan Batchelor, who opened a large book to release the storytellers who marched onto the stage and swamped it with books. Another feature of the production was the imaginative use of trunks, suggesting a dressing-up box but being used also in much more sinister ways, including a guillotine.

We began in France with ‘Bluebeard’. Adorned with a long blue woollen beard, Weston Lord was suitably threatening and cruel towards his young wife, played with wide-eyed ingenuity by Cate Philip. Erin McCombe played her sister with a comforting strength, and the story was illustrated throughout by an excellent chorus of dead wives and deftly narrated by Monty Clarke and Joss Pinnington.

Moving to Norway for ‘Kari and the North Wind’ the excellent Maddie Lock held the audience in the palm of her hand as she guided us through her battle with the North Wind (played with real confidence and a theatrical ease worthy of someone much older by Seb Leman), and with the Troll Crone (a hooked-nosed Kimi Zoet) who stole her Magic Cloth, Goat and Stick.  Tom Cooper, as the bandy-legged goat that was able to ‘crip crap dosh’ (and maltesers) won the audience over from his first entrance in a memorable comic turn: he looked pleased with himself but touchingly vulnerable as he was kidnapped.  Ollie Taylor, in the first of two delightful comic appearances played the martial arts-trained ‘Stick’.  The whole pack of them, once they had vanquished their foes, were able to return home to Ellie Smith’s strong and comforting mother figure and live happy lives.

The most substantial and moving of the stories was ‘Beauty and the Beast’.  This was led by two remarkable performances from Kimi Zoet and Orlando Taylor supported by Abi Dahl and Gaby Carter, bewigged as the vile sisters who were suitably loud and brash – making the audience laugh with their false shows of emotion. Kimi maintained an impressive focus as the modest Beauty, her facial expressions always showing an element of thoughtful vulnerability and moving the audience almost to tears as she resolved to marry her captor. The audience were genuinely taken aback as Orlando Taylor made his first entrance as the Beast: in an original costume that made him appear more grotesque than animalistic, Orlando burst onto the stage full of angry, resentful energy pulsating like a caged creature. Bent almost double throughout but leaping about the stage deftly and with total control, he used his costume with extraordinary skill and seemed to double in size.  He communicated the essential part of the character: the insecurity which causes his anger.  After he was released from his spell his transformation back to a human was a real coup de theatre: the two characters were so different that the resolution to the story sent shivers down the spine. The emotion as, visibly shaken, the reborn Prince shook hands with Beauty’s father (the versatile Ollie Taylor) was palpable.

Monty Clarke then bounded onto the stage as one of the most adorable dogs to paw the VCT stage – following in the illustrious dog-playing footsteps of Tommy Lyster in a previous Junior Play.  Monty played Toby, (in ‘Toby and the Wolf’) the dog that is led astray by a mafioso Wolf who sets him up with a life of plenty only to claim a reward for his help.  Weston Lord slinked into the story threatening the hapless hound; concocting dastardly schemes to attack a ram (Joss Pinnington – nonchalant and weary until suddenly energetic) and a colt (Ollie Taylor – camp, then violent, then all camp innocence) the wolf is eventually cut down by the Miller, played with gun-wielding vigour by Joe Gill, and his shotgun. His wife was given a strong performance by Honor Meadows.

‘Juniper Tree’ was a chilling variation on resurrection myths.  Ellie Smith gave a very mature depiction of jealousy and hate, decapitating her stepson (the vulnerable Ed Russell, his second head sculpted by Tom Barnett) and serving him as a meal (Titus Andronicus-style) to his father (another memorable cameo by Orlando Taylor).  The tree was delightfully constructed from coat-hangers and the bird was movingly sung by Megan Batchelor, with the affecting song composed by assistant director Izzie Simpkin.

The tone for the final story (The Emperor’s New Clothes) was set as the fantastic and fantastical Harry Adorian catwalked downstage as the ‘Vogue’-reading, vain and flirty Emperor ready to be hoodwinked into buying new clothes.  Harry’s comic timing and facial expressions (including, I can confirm, ‘Blue Steel’) were a delight – interacting with the audience to that extent requires some bravery.  Tricked by two charlatan weavers who were played with laid-back mischief by Cameron Scheijde and  Jamie Linford, the Emperor is, of course, let down by the gullibility of his (delightfully camp) courtiers.  Of these, special mention must go to Ali Johnston and Seb Leman: power-mincing around the stage in response to the new clothes, they captured the vanity and prancing stupidity of the world of fashion.  It was the familiar face of Megan Batchelor as the young girl who had brought us into the stories at the outset, who was the child whose truth cut through the veneer of flattery: “He’s got nothing on”. 

This was a play that people wanted to be involved in: the keen Tech Crew were delighted just to see their names on the programme and the lighting and sound of Jonathan Stocks and Milo Livesey and the stage-managing of Harrison White were as important as the acting of the 26-strong cast to the success of the evening.  And this success was above all down to the professional leadership of both Mark Jenkins and director Nikki Lockwood, whose choice of show allowed the talents of these young stars to shine so brightly under the VCT lights.

JLC & PJL