If somebody told you there was a new musical about a group of plucky children during World War One trying to do their bit to help the war effort, you might reasonably expect a sweet, sentimental, even nauseatingly saccharine story. And you’d be dead wrong. The Battle Of Boat is – well, imagine a cross between Just William and Lord Of The Flies, scripted by Roddy Doyle, and you’d just about have it. A world where adults are relegated to shadowy, authoritarian nuisances, and children reign supreme. A world of mice and mud, of beastie-traps and scraped knees. A world where anything is possible if only you’re brave enough and you have your friends to help you a bit, and most importantly if you make sure the grown-ups don’t find out.
When one of their (underage) number manages to get his papers to go and fight in France, the rest of the rag-tag gang feel helpless to assist. Hampered by unreasonable adults and a fearsome local bully, they come up with scheme after scheme to get to his side and help him fight the Germans. After several abortive efforts to either get called up themselves, stow away or fly to France in a home-made zeppelin they finally hit on a faultless plan – they’ll build a boat!
The songs by Ethan Lewis Maltby are exhilarating and appropriate, if not exactly memorable, and they are beautifully played by the live band, led by Musical Director Candida Caldicot. The script, by Jenna Donnelly, strikes exactly the right balance between childish and adult humour and perceptions. The children’s determined and eccentric escapades are both hair-raising and very funny, but there are plenty of tear-jerking moments too. Loss, forgiveness and redemption are all on the menu, and they are handled so lightly and sensitively that they are touching rather than cloying. The language, however, is a clumsy mixture of “jolly good, chaps” and modern teen speak which was probably designed to help the cast to a more natural delivery, but which sits oddly on the ear.
The idea of having 27 children on one stage must be terrifying, but choreographer Darragh O’Leary has it all under control. The children jump, they run, they swarm, they dance – but everyone is exactly where they should be at the right time and the whole thing feels very tight. A terrifying and complicated sea-scene, which could easily have gone badly wrong, is so well-done that I almost forgot to breathe for a second. The set consists primarily of multi-purpose blocks serving as lamps, trees and roads and a leafy translucent backdrop lit to reflect the seasons and the atmosphere, and the children carry out all of the scene changes themselves with consummate professionalism. The few adults to be allowed into the action are played by the children themselves, creatively using basic props to stunning effect. Interestingly, the actual adults involved back-stage rather let the side down by occasionally letting themselves be visible through the gaps, which was distracting.
Most importantly, director Kate Golledge has brought out the very best in those children. Their acting is natural, warm and intensely watchable. They understand the script, they know what they are doing, and they know how to work with and listen to each other. Some characters are more enjoyable than others, but that is down to the writing rather than to the acting. It is rare to be able to say that an entire cast is uniformly excellent, especially when the cast is made up of 27 people, but that is certainly the case with The Battle Of Boat.
This is a bold and entertaining new musical, with pots of talent and a whole lot of heart. Congratulations to the whole team on a job well done.
Review by Genni Trickett
The Battle of Boat
Thu 11 Aug – Sat 13 Aug
A new musical from the National Youth Music Theatre
Written by Jenna Donnelly and Ethan Lewis Maltby, directed by Kate Golledge
The Battle of Boat is a courageous tale of a group of children trying to find their place in a world at war in 1916. Frustrated by their inability to join the soldiers in battle, the children decide to do whatever it takes to help in the war effort. However, they soon have to tackle their own conflict in the form of a local gang of bullies who will stop at nothing to see every plan they form fail. Heartwarming, funny, emotional and exciting, this original new musical is a true celebration of the steadfast British spirit that shone through during WW1.
Written by Jenna Donnelly and Ethan Lewis Maltby, the British music theatre duo began their writing partnership in 2010 with a commissioned piece for the opening of the Kent Youth Games. They went on to write the percussion-musical DrumChasers in 2011, narrated by Stephen Fry. With several musicals under their belt, their most recent collaboration on The Sparkle Thief completed a second run of shows in Canterbury in 2015. Separately, Donnelly has written songs for artists all over the world including the latest platinum selling album by Japanese artist Namie Amuro, whilst Maltby has composed for major sporting events including several FA Cup finals and the UEFA Europa League.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the award-winning National Youth MusicTheatre represents the very best in work with young people in musical theatre, leading Andrew Lloyd Webber to describe it as “the best youth music theatre in the world”.
Supported by Arts Council England