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Moana the Musical Jr. - November 2022

I am grateful to Ben Coleman for inviting me to report on Avocet Theatre Company’s production of “Moana Jr” at Wykham Theatre, Banbury.  Ben was the Director of this production, and was in the foyer to greet me, as were Choreographer Amelia Haverson and Musical Director Louise Nunneley.  They were all so enthusiastic about the production, so excited about what the young people in the company had achieved, that I knew it was going to be a terrific show even before I entered the auditorium.


The production didn’t disappoint.  “Moana Jr” is a stage musical adaptation of the Disney animated feature, and it packs a lot into a relatively short running time.  It is also presents the creative team with some interesting challenges, the first of which is that the piece is set unambiguously in Oceania.  Aware of the danger of cultural misappropriation, Ben embraced some characteristic aspects of the culture, such as the costumes.  There were plenty of grass skirts in evidence, and Moana’s costume referenced both the location and the story’s animated film roots.  Ben pointed out in his programme note that Maui’s tattoos are a sacred aspect of Pacific Islander culture, and had therefore been omitted; in this way, the Company presented a respectful celebration of the islanders’ way of life.


A second challenge is that animated feature films have an unrivalled capacity to tell stories in spectacular ways.  The Wykham Theatre is a fine venue, but a lot of imagination is required to tell technically demanding stories such as this.  Fortunately, imagination is something that the company isn’t short of.  The simple backdrop flats, painted an impossible blue and dotted with brilliant white clouds, reflected the Oceanic setting and film origins of the story.  The narrow raised area at the back of the stage, the various levels towards the front of the stage and the decorative steps into the auditorium provided different acting areas and facilitated some striking tableaux.  The one major prop, Moana’s raft, was adaptable and solidly constructed.


A real strength of the production was in how the cast themselves helped to create the scenes.  Some of the ocean scenes were conjured up with long bolts of fabric – a familiar technique but given unusual impact through the effectiveness of the movement.  At other times the sea was suggested through fans with shorter lengths of fabric attached, or through the arched bodies of the company surrounding Moana’s canoe.  This was physical storytelling of rare quality.    Clever use was made of colour, with the characteristic red of Te Ka and green of Te Fiti allowing the transformation scene to be brought vividly to life. At one point Moana has to venture into the lair of the giant crab Tamatoa, who could scarcely have been more crabulous … The body of this famously shiny creature was given form by the use of transparent umbrellas with lights inside.

Elissa Xiourouppas as the eponymous heroine Moana, led the huge cast with conviction.  Elissa has exactly the right tone for these Disney songs, and she exuded wholesome, positive, role-model energy.  Myron Byfield clearly relished his role as the demigod Maui; Myron has learned how to connect with the audience, and this role gave him ample opportunity to strut his stuff.  Maui’s self-confidence, his swagger, his insecurities – they were all there in Myron’s performance.  While undoubtedly the leading lights of this production, Elissa and Myron were given solid support by the other principals.  Cheniece White, Eleanor Fairley and Hollie Keene sang out clearly as the chief ancestors, while Izzy Hudson gave an impressive performance as Gramma Tala.  This society matriarch doesn’t have long to embolden Moana in her quest to restore the fortunes of the island, but Izzy brought a presence and authority to the role that made her intervention both powerful and plausible.  When she returned to join the ancestors she was given a rather wonderful shawl of lights which made its own contribution to the magical storytelling.


Theo Langley and Leah Quborsi brought an appropriate blend of pride, concern and unreasonableness to the roles of Moana’s parents, Chief Tui and Sina, while Lily Conway held the stage in the key transformation between the good and evil characters of Te Fiti and Te Ka.  Katie Melzack clearly had a ball as Tamatoa, the shiniest of shiny crabs, belting out her song with admirable confidence and given strategic support by Skye Westworth and Colm Forde as her claws.  Moana’s friends Pua and Hei Hei were played by Anaiya Conway-Smith and Troy Ennis, Anaiya and Troy must have been amongst the youngest members of the company, and their innocent naivety provided potent encouragement to Moana when she hesitated over the actions she needed to take to save the island.


The real stars of the show, however, were the members of the company.  Almost fifty in number, they were everywhere you looked; sub-choruses on the downstage platforms, dancers on the stage, individuals making their way into the auditorium.  They knew the musical numbers thoroughly, no mean feat when you consider that the surprisingly complex songs were co-authored by Lin-Manuel Miranda and partly written in several Oceanic languages.  The unison singing in “Know Who You Are” was particularly impressive.  The movement and dancing was similarly admirable; a dance team took on the most demanding choreography, but the whole company was left with plenty to do with some inclusive yet still challenging routines.


The orchestral soundtrack was provided – apparently this is a condition imposed by the rights-holders.  It was impressively reproduced over the sound system, with appropriately cinematic levels of bass. CCTV of the Music Director enabled the performers to stay in time with the backing track.


The whole piece was given a suitably theatrical feel thanks to some excellent lighting; a bit of smoke showed off the capabilities of the computerised kit in the roof.  At other times, some old-fashioned techniques were used to enhance the storytelling; I particularly enjoyed the way in which some of the backstory was illustrated by back-projecting shadows onto a thin white front cloth.  Towards the end of the show, in a symbolically important moment, Myron just about managed to get his paper bird to take wing.


Watching “Moana Jr” it was easy to forget that the company were all 7-19 years old.  How many members of the company will develop a lifelong love of musical theatre through experiences such as this?  Avocet Theatre Company’s inclusive ethos brings opportunity for everyone, although that opportunity is embraced by more girls than boys.  It also provides the chance for the performers to develop their skills.  The company certainly exploited the possibilities offered by “Moana Jr”; in the hands of ATC it became a joyous celebration of the power of musical theatre to enthuse young people and brighten all our lives.

Robin Hood - March 2022

It’s almost the end of March, but it’s still the pantomime season.  Oh yes it is!  Thanks to Covid, Avocet Theatre Company’s production of “Robin Hood and the Witches of Sherwood” is a show that has been two years in the making, and which had to be postponed from January because of the rise of the Omicron variant.  The time has been well spent: the topical references in the script have been brought bang up to date (President Zelenskiy and the cost of living crisis were both in there), even the youngest members of the cast were wholly comfortable with their lines, and the company dancing was very impressive.

I am grateful to Ben Coleman for inviting me along, although my inability to write the revised date into the correct square of the family calendar meant I missed my booking.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to catch up with the last night performance.

Avocet Theatre Company is an innovative company which evolved out of the St John’s Drama Group, and aims to give young people aged 8 and over the opportunity to take part in pantomime, musical theatre, multimedia and community theatre events.  This production of “Robin Hood and the Witches of Sherwood” was squarely aimed at this same target audience.  Some of the elements of traditional pantomime were missing: no good fairies (although the witches were relatively benevolent), no community singing, and no bombardment of bon-bons.  On the other hand, the sinister tradition of pantomime (baddies entering stage left) was broadly observed, the casting was even more gender-blind than you might expect, and many members of the company were in comfy tights.  Some of the topical references were a bit sharper than usual, and the double entendres a little more risqué, but this was still good wholesome family fun.

The cast was led by Myron Byfield as the eponymous hero.  Myron has real presence on stage; his relaxed, confident manner is complemented by clear diction and a good singing voice.  It’s his dancing that catches the eye, though: he moves well with quick feet, good extension in the arms and his head held high.  Maid Marion was played by Eleanor Fairley: the leading lady is rarely the most interesting role in a pantomime, but Eleanor portrayed Marion with charm and grace, a serene counterpoint to the larger-than-life characters around her.

Robin’s band of merry men gave opportunities for some of the younger members of the company to shine, including Chloe Fulford-Hewitt as Little John, Isla Swanton as Will Scarlett, and Cheniece White as Alan-A-Dale, who also had the opportunity to show off her pleasant singing voice.  Ian Keeffe provided the reassurance of experience in the role of Friar Tuck, even if he didn’t have the build for one of the best jokes in the show (“Why is that fat friar thinking deeply?” “He must be a deep fat fryer!”).  Meanwhile, Louise Nunneley as Molly, Maid Marion’s lady-in-waiting, provided excellent support, deflecting attention back to the focus of the action, engaging directly with the audience when required to, and powering the narrative through her clear diction and confident demeanour.

A good pantomime needs a good villain, and the principal baddie here was the Sheriff of Nottingham, played with lip-smacking relish by Gill Crowther.  Gill delivers her lines quite deep in her register, which, together with her very convincing beard, had me checking the programme, but the deep voice helps her to establish her disreputable credentials. A little more evil laughter would not have gone amiss. It took me a while to realise it, but she sounded weirdly reminiscent of Theresa May, and was even more effective at maintaining a hostile environment.  She deserved the accolade of being roundly booed at the end.

Prince John, confidently played by Katie Crowther, defies categorisation.  Is s/he the principal boy?  Surely not – Prince John usurps King Richard and slaps taxes on the poor.  He doesn’t even get the girl – any girl.  On the other hand, he is often to be found stage right, and looks handsome enough in doublet and hose.  Katie dealt with these inherent contradictions largely by ignoring them, and simply turning in a very personable performance with strong acting and capable rapping.  Sam Brittain makes the most of his limited opportunities to impress as King Richard, with big showpiece musical numbers bookending the show.  Rocking his regal robes, and deploying his hand-held microphone to good effect, he returns from the crusades with barely a mark on him, demonstrates why he is King, and reveals an improbable love interest …

The Sheriff’s various henchmen showed promise in the dark arts of melodramatic mischief.  Lewis Manley as Sergeant led his platoon of tax collectors with an air of cheerful incompetence, while Camron Northcote and Colm Forde explored the comic potential of the hired hands Dipsy and Nutsy.  Comic double acts are challenging to pull off – the characters need to have distinct but complementary characters, and slapstick is an underrated skill.  Camron and Colm had some good routines with their axes; and comic skills are passed on by allowing young actors the opportunities to learn them.

The Witches of Sherwood – the charmingly named Acne, Pimple and Psoriasis – were played with evident enjoyment by Amelia Haverson, Hollie Keene and Jennie Healy.  Drawing inspiration from their counterparts in The Scottish Play (I feel I need to observe theatrical conventions as well), they dispensed questionable advice and dodgy potions in roughly equal measure, and were well served by some garish costumes and splendid stage effects.

Alfie Blackwell played Sir Lancelot, the “Buttons” character, with admirable confidence and maturity.  Alfie has a fine voice used to good effect in several musical numbers, but even more impressive was his ability to make a connection with the audience. His signature cry of “Hiya Kids!” never failed to draw a strong response, and he dealt calmly and humorously with an unexpected heckle.  These are skills that are difficult to teach and can take years to perfect.  Which brings us to Ben Coleman as Nurse Bedpan, our pantomime dame.  Ben looked at ease in an array of eye-catching frocks, although my favourite costume was a variant on the old “man on ostrich” costume made popular by Bernie Clifton.  Ben has the ability to own the stage: inhabiting his character, engaging the audience, totally in command of his material and evidently incapable of being fazed by anything.

While Ben gave the standout performance, it was his abilities as a director that ensured that this was a show that added up to a great deal more than the sum of its parts.  The set worked well within the limitations of a school stage, with curtain cloths to facilitate quick scene changes and different levels for interest.  The costumes were good, notably in the number about success in show-business which featured Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Darth Vader, amongst many others.  The make-up supported the cross-gender casting without drawing excessive attention to itself, although some of Nurse Bedpan’s wigs weren’t quite as subtle.  The lighting was particularly effective in support of the songs, with the moving spotlights revealed by the smoke in the air.

A wide range of pre-recorded modern and popular music was featured, often in unexpected combinations – did I notice Britney Spears’ “Toxic” paired with Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” at one point?  The gags came thick and fast, and some of them – especially when in the hands of the more experienced performers – were delivered with exemplary comic timing.  Even the youngest members of the company had their lines nailed down though.  For me, the most impressive aspect of the production was the company dancing:  Amelia Haverson and Debbie Coleman’s intelligent choreography based around individual performers in unison was very covid-friendly, as routines could go ahead even with performers missing.  The standard and unity of performance was excellent.  Talking of covid-friendly, I enjoyed the socially-distanced pantomime horse!

Towards the end of the show Nurse Bedpan asks “What sort of idiots would pay money to see people in silly costumes singing and dancing?”.  Well, plenty of people in Banbury would, and they’re quite right to do so.  “Robin Hood and the Witches of Sherwood” was community theatre at its best.  Avocet Theatre Company is evidently proud of its history and its ethos, and rightly proud of this show; it’s wonderful to see the traditions of pantomime being carried forward in such a joyful and inclusive way.

Andrew Walter

NODA Regional Representative

Elf the Musical - November 2019

Thank you to Ben Coleman, the Chairman of Avocet Theatre Company, for the invitation to review their latest seasonal production – Elf The Musical Jr. I was especially pleased to be visiting this group as they have newly joined the NODA family in District 12 of the London Region. Welcome to you all. Of course I have seen many of you perform with others groups but it was especially exciting to visit a new group to my District.


Being staged in the familiar surroundings of the Wykham Theatre in Banbury this was a fabulous production from start to finish and testament to all the hard work put in by the production team, back stage personnel and of course the young people on stage.


This heart-warming tale of a baby who somehow ends ups at the North Pole as one of Santa’s helpers and soon discovers that as a human baby, he grows quite rapidly (soon towering over the other elves) and is not a very good toy maker.  Buddy, as he is known, on discovering by chance that he is actually human and has a father and family in New York, sets about finding them and therein lies of course the tales of mishap, adventure and even romance which form the basis of the story which is based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell as Buddy.


This lively musical version had Alfie Blackwell as the irrepressible and optimistic Buddy. He finds good and innocence in everything and this is the source of much of the humour in the piece. Alfie was outstanding in this role - bounding around the stage with seemingly endless exuberance and vitality. Alfie demonstrated some great comic timing with some great facial expressions and really captured the character very well with excellent vocals and believable interactions with other cast members. I was quite exhausted watching him as he virtually never left the stage. Well done!


Katie Crowther was a joy to watch as Jovie, Buddy’s love interest. She played the character just right getting the cynical side of Jovie across and initially a bit bad tempered with Buddy but eventually warming to him. Katie sang with feeling and with strong vocal projection. Never Fall in Love with an Elf was particularly well interpreted.


George O’Connor as Santa Claus was very good - giving us an amiable and traditional characterisation as he narrates the tale of how Buddy came to be an Elf. This was a strong performance with good interaction with other cast members and clear vocal and spoken diction.


Charlie Cox gave a strong performance as Buddy’s disagreeable and bad tempered businessman father Walter Hobbs with some great singing and some fantastic comic timing as did Ava Butler as Walter’s wife Emily and Colm Forde as Buddy’s half-brother Michael. Ava and Colm had some lovely scenes together and their I’ll Believe in You was especially well done! Both had strong vocal delivery and believable characterisations.


I loved the ever dependable Will Healy as the big boss Mr. Greenway and the Manager of Macy’s. Will always puts all his energies into the parts he plays and his comic timing and stage craft is very good. Congratulations.


Lending strong support in some of the smaller roles were Cheneice White as Deb - Walter’s efficient yet long suffering secretary demonstrating some impressive comedic skills, Kitty Russell and Lexie Franklin as two of Santa’s more important Elves - Charlie and Shawanda - who played their parts with conviction. Camron Northcote, Megan Veres, Eleanor Fairley and Victoria Humphries as Walter’s office staff members - Matthews, Chadwick, Sarah and Sam - gave great performances and really put everything into portraying these supporting characters. Felicity Foster was good as big hearted TV reporter, Charlotte Dennon, and Caitlin Gold and Amelie Foster as Darlene Lambert and Emma Van Brocklin reacted well to the revelation that Buddy knew of their past Christmas gifts. All of you added strong support to the principal cast.  Well done!


There was some fine ensemble work too in this production. The energy levels were amazing and the impact of everyone dressed as Elves suddenly appearing in the opening number was fantastic. The whole ensemble (unfortunately too many of you to single out for individual mention) worked so well as a team whether you were industrious elves or bustling citizens of New York city everyone was totally in character the whole time. You all moved, sang and reacted splendidly to the action on stage and were definitely one of the best young ensemble groups I have seen for a long time. Well done to all of you!


Director Ben Coleman must have been very proud of his hardworking ensemble cast and brilliant principal work. The whole production flowed so well and the characters were very well drawn and believable. This was a production to savour with all the elements coming together to make one tremendous ‘whole’. I liked the pace and the energy on stage and the fact that everyone was so well drilled in their movement and singing. The latter two aspects no doubt down to the hard work of choreographer Amelia Haverson and Musical Director Louise Nunnely, assisted by Gill Crowther. The dancing was first rate with some lovely use of groupings and with steps accessible to all ages and levels of attainment. I liked the tap routine in the finale which was reminiscent of 42nd Street. In spite of the perils of using backing tracks the company and principals delivered some excellent singing with some beautiful harmony singing. Everyone knew their words and did a great job keeping in time with the musical accompaniment. This was a very polished piece of theatre from all aspects of the production, direction, choreography and musical direction. My one reservation was that in the skating scene the roller blades were rather noisy but that is being very picky!


Josh Lake’s lighting plot was just amazing with some wonderful effects which really enhanced the production. The lighting in the skating scene in central park was one of the highlights for me. Josh Smith’s sound design worked well with clear speech and vocal’s from all cast members using mics. The musical balance was just right too and the music sequencing worked very well also.


The hair and make-up team led by Jennie Healy had done a fine job and everyone looked splendid and suitably elfin when required. The costumes supplied by Jeanette Gee at Wacky Wardrobe were perfect and so colourful and completely in keeping with the style and concept of the production. The Elves in particular looked amazing.


I liked the set design by Ben Coleman and Jo Sammons which cleverly and quickly adapted to the various locations. Ben did mention there had been a ‘set disaster’ before the show but it certainly wasn’t apparent in the performance. True professionalism!


Debbie Coleman’s collection of props looked great and I liked the nice touches of authenticity - the period pram was one instance which springs to mind.


The programme was colourful and informative and could be read easily in the semi-darkness. It was also printed on good quality paper and finished to a high standard.


Thank you so much Front of House team and manager Sue Dowers for a really warm welcome for my guest and I. We had a lovely time with you all. In spite of Avocet being a new NODA company it was nice to see so many familiar faces and catch up with all news theatrical!


In conclusion a final thank you to everyone involved with this delightful, festive production. It definitely put me and I’m sure the wonderfully appreciative audience very much in the festive spirit!!


A very Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year to you all!


Rob Bertwistle

Regional Representative

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