20 March 2018

How do you get a school full of boys approaching or relishing the advent and adventure that attends the bewildering and distracting period of early manhood?

Just ask musical director Debbie Rose and director Jennifer Brown who pulled it off in some style with the ambitious production of “Smike” at the Amey Theatre, Abingdon – with terrific ensemble work, poignant duets and solos that identified probable future stars, accompanied by the ragamuffin Y6 choir, all for one night only.

This musical adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, music and lyrics by Roger Holman and Simon May, is an inspired and brave choice, blending the original novel, a witty script, a brilliant mix of pathos and rumbustious ‘attitude’ in the 20 low-whispered to big high-tempo numbers and even a tricky time-shift, the whole working for children and adults alike, to their delight.

To capture and motivate the performances, Debbie’s band, a sextet that included APS old boys, drove the action along and had the astonished audience stamping and hollering alongside the cast led by Leo in the infectious Dotheboys Rock number. Mention must also be made of the behind the scenes team that took on the stage management and technical roles that helped the production to run so smoothly.

Inevitably, the major singer-actors are the catalyst for the dual roles in Charles Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall – in Yorkshire, complete with rich regional accents – and the modern school. These larger-than-life characters were epitomised by the Squeers, Mr and Mrs, almost caricatures, played with verve and confidence by Hugo and Rupert. 

Tom, as Smike (and the modern school’s Smeeton) achieved a superb balance between the roles and moved the audience in his demanding solos with outstanding emotion. Josef as Nickleby/Nicholls was an effective straight man who carried the social message of the play with quiet assertiveness against the Squeers’ abusive regime. A bewigged Christopher convinced everyone with his articulacy as Florrie/Miss Grant, and the other pupils and characters, played by boys from years 7 and 8 gave able support throughout. The year 6 choir played cat's cradle in the background and swelled the sound impressively in the group musical numbers.

Charles Dickens’ huge success with Oliver Twist impressed on him and right across the land the huge influence social, political, and, yes, moral too he had brought about and Nicholas Nickleby was a swift follow-up to exploit the opportunity for reform and this production precisely charts the consequent benefits of how we live now in 21st century.

The boys of Abingdon Preparatory School will have learned and, indeed, earned a real understanding of what it does and must mean to them in the future and their contribution is a testament to their head – no Squeers character he – and the teaching staff for a remarkable performance. Bravo to all involved. But for one night only? Ah, that’s show business boys!

Review by Alan Tull, edited by Jennifer Brown

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