“Roll up, Roll up, Come along to Smithfield” was the call to fill Big School for the Middle Fourth performance of Captain Stirrick. Written and directed by Mr Jeremy James Taylor OBE, founder of the National Youth Music Theatre, who sensitively adjusted the script in response to recent events at the College to create a showcase of the musical that offered a compelling piece of theatre.
Set in London during the early 19th century, the piece focused on the character of 14-year-old Ned Stirrick and his group of young pickpockets. Stirrick was brought to life by Ed Lyons, who had the accent and mannerisms of a young man on a mission; not always an honest one! Ed’s subtle portrayal of bravado was tinged with the damage of parental loss and extreme poverty. His moving lament to his father was one of the highlights of his performance.
The perfect casting of Stirrick’s ragtag gang brought together a group of actors who had the ability to create vignettes that framed the stage beautifully but didn’t detract from the main action on stage. With movement guidance from Miss Molly Price: Ilia Shashkov, Tilly Craggs, James Bedford, Annabel Curry, Ana Clara da Rocha-Pannetier, Edgar Kotz, Daisy Gillespie, Francesca Nicolosi and Annabelle Verbeek showed huge talent in their ability to move on and off the stage discreetly yet command attention at the pertinent moment. Within the group, Donkin, Stirrick’s right-hand man, was excellently performed by Will Cooke who struck the right chord by portraying a tough kid who had retained his humour despite challenging circumstances. Brandon McGuinness, who has quickly established himself as a regular on the Epsom stage, really came to the fore with his brash yet amusing interjections as Thomas Gray.
Livi Hakata, playing the role of Peg Clarke, was a revelation to the audience. Her haunting voice during The Weary Cutters perfectly captured the salty-eyed sadness of loss, survival and the struggle to maintain a sense of humanity.
Bringing much humour to the role of Lord Kensington was Hector Macmillan. His depiction of Kensington with a thudding hangover as he sorted through his letters, held patiently by his secretary Mrs Sims, introduced the characters expertly. Caroline Bartram’s portrayal of the long-suffering Sims was artfully acted with a glare that could stop a pickpocket at fifty paces. Belle English, as Lady Caroline, played the superb foil to the hungover Lord Kensington enthusiastically insisting upon a trip to Bartholomew Fair.
At the fair, the audience was introduced to the many delights on offer including the Fantocinni family and their colourful marionettes in competition with Mrs Leach with her Punch and Judy show. The inclusion of puppetry added an interesting layer to the play suggesting a juxtaposition between the gritty reality of Ned Stirrick’s world and the whimsical and fantastical aspects of the puppetry.
Lara Sennaro, playing Grandma Fantocinni, gave the audience a great comic turn as the rarely happy head of the family. Joseph Morley gave a very strong performance as her demoralised, long-suffering son Carlo; downtrodden not only by his mother but his formidable wife Mrs Flockton, despite not having married, as he reminded the audience in no uncertain terms! Harriet Mathers inhabited the no-nonsense Mrs Flockton with great assurance, hinting at a glimmer of softness for her children played in a suitably acquiescent way by Roscoe Crockett, Hannah McIntyre-Brown, Miles Wong and Sophia Kwok. All the Fantocinni roles included handling moving puppets which they performed most skillfully indeed.
Gabi Todd has stepped forward as one to watch in future productions. Her role of Mrs Leach – part drunk, part fantasist as she reminds Stirrick not to wake the sleeping puppets – brought an emotional maturity to the stage that was gripping. The audience revelled in her cockney words as she lauded Lord Kensington’s request for her Punch and Judy show over the marionettes of the Fantocinni family; showing off her formidable acting skills and ability to command a stage. Equally, Benjamin Senior, as Charlie, her assistant, artfully offered the audience a whole range of emotions from humour to frustration. The dynamic created between the two characters was superbly dramatised.
The fair was also the location for suspicious meetings between Ned Stirrick and his partner in crime William Perfect played by Caspar Maxwell Randeria, who depicted the less-than-perfect character with great certainty. Perfect, who despite keeping the whole pickpocket gang in sausages despises them all wholeheartedly. Caspar captured the essence of the part and expertly played the shifty Perfect as a character with dishonesty at his core.
The fairground workers and street children were key to the fair scenes boosting the vocal performances in Roll Up and Botany Bay in particular. The roles were brought to life with much flair by Hannah Daniels, Imogen Kennell, Olivia Georgiou, Lakshmi Sharma, Ellen Young, Alessi Steidl and Amelia Jallot in her dual role onstage and as Assistant Stage Manager. The steady hand of the law was equally well performed by Issy Penino Vinas, Kiara Clements and Charlotte Chang who were on hand for crowd control and carting pickpockets off to prison at the earliest opportunity. The ensemble cast showed a real sense of collaborative working. Sharing the stage equally, they all collectively contributed to the overall storytelling and production.
The lighting and sound production was provided by the renowned College Tech Team who responded to the script with sensitive lighting, capturing the essence of the moment, and sounds that transported the audience from the docks of South London to the thrill of the fair. All the props were managed onstage by the cast who capably disappeared flowers, adjusted the angle of the full-size Punch and Judy theatre and ably arranged seating all whilst performing at full force.
Underpinning this theatrical treat was a stunning musical performance directed by Mr Freddy Wickham. The treatment of the ballad score was not only reflective of the thought-provoking and at times emotionally charged narrative, but also had the power to move the audience from one scene to the next. The student musicians, Annabel Eaves and Ines Lonardo played impeccably as if they had been playing with the professional musicians for many years. Whether it was a jaunty nautical piece or a mournful ballad, the music inspired the mind to new places.
For many of the students, this was their first taste of theatre at the College and all the possibilities it can offer them. Despite the production changes they formed a tight-knit group and should be commended on their strength as a team. We were lucky to have had not only articulate actors but student representatives backstage and in the musical team, showing that theatre is a true collaboration of many parts and there are roles for everyone. The entire cast of Captain Stirrick have shown not only maturity in their skills but a sensitivity to the script that belies their age. In the immortal line of Mr Punch “That’s the way to do it!”.