Orvin - Champion Of Champions: World Premiere Reviews
Orvin - Champion Of Champions (by Jeremy Kingston)
"The National Youth Music Theatre mounted an excellent Oklahoma! this year in the Peacock Theatre, London, a large venue of traditional design where the audience faces the stage and singers must belt out the songs so that even the back row hears all. Conditions are very different in The Round at Scarborough, a four-sided space only six rows deep where a show bustin' out with the power of Oklahoma! would blast us from our seats.
So for his first collaboration with the NYMT Alan Ayckbourn has written, with Denis King, a chamber musical, Orvin - Champion of Champions. None of their songs asks to be belted out, and most make witty fun of the genre. The wicked prince several times starts to sing a justification for his wickedness but is always cut off before reaching the end of his first line. Ola, the princess's maid, never manages to sing the closing four-letter word in the verses of her appraisal of young Orvin. Always some other character will rush in with a new twist of the plot.
The company includes a greater number of 15-year-olds and younger (the NYMT's cut-off point is the twentieth birthday), yet these manage very ably as the chorus of medieval warriors or courtiers, while several of the principals show themselves to be experts in the balancing trick of taking the story seriously while joking at its conventions.
There is a second, older chorus sitting aloft in two of the back rows, clad in sky blue and following events on stage with the close concern of a crowd at Centre Court. This is the Celestial Choir; intent on recounting the improving tale of Ulmar, the Great Hero, but brought to a halt when he inconveniently dies. Yet the tale must be told, so into the breach steps - or, rather, is pushed - Ulmar's pathetic squire, Orvin. "I'm your man," he sings to the crowd, though somewhat hampered by his jammed visor, and off he reluctantly goes to claim his bride.
Ayckbourn derives much good-natured fun from the misadventures that follow, climaxing with a general slaughter of the royals and most of their scheming underlings by sword, dagger, poison or heart attack. Tim Webb's Orvin is over concerned to suggest hesitancy but his drunk scenes are neat, as is the duet with Anja Rodford's delightful Ola. Dominic Tighe makes a fine lip-curling villain, with Simon Eves amusing as his cringing henchman, and Georgina White is the bold princess who must herself sing the praises of her beauty because her suitor is too tongue-tied to manage this essential item."
(The Times, 13 August 2003)
Orvin - Champion Of Champions (by Dave Windass)
"Alan Ayckbourn's freshly penned piece of youth theatre pretty much has it all - smart tunes courtesy of Denis King, genuinely comic lyrics and laughs by the barrel load. And, it must be said, an outstanding cast of talent from the National Youth Music Theatre. Like many an Ayckbourn written for and aimed at younger people, the writer opts for tongue-in-cheek, ironic storytelling that upturns the conventions of tales told by narrators. Hence, the celestial chorus might try and impose the play's plot on Orvin (Tim Webb), a simple squire who has accidentally stumbled into the main role of swashbuckling hero but he's having none of it.
Ayckbourn has had a veritable field day writing for a cast of 40 and they, in turn, have repaid their director with fine performances.
As well as Webb, who plays his bumbling fool with high level energy, Dominic Tighe's spitting, evil Prince Dedrick, Simon Eves' creepy, nasal-toned henchman Skeets and Anja Rodford's Ola stand out as stars of tomorrow.
There's barely anything at fault with this high quality production, which draws heavily on swashbuckling cinema, Danny Kaye's The Court Jester and television classic Blackadder for inspiration. Steven Markwick's musical direction, Sheila Carter's choreography, Christine Wall's costumes and Kath Geraghty's simple but effective lighting add several layers of icing to a very sweet cake.
If this if the future of musical theatre, then that future looks extremely bright."
(The Stage, 21 August 2003)
Orvin - Champion Of Champions (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Alan Ayckbourn is still finding new horizons to conquer.
The Scarborough knight has linked with the National Youth Music Theatre for the first time for "something fun", writing a tale of warriors, squires, maids and beautiful princesses for a cast of 40.
"A company of 40 plus? After 45 years of writing almost exclusively for a small cast, low budget regional subsidised theatre, how could I resist the invitation?" says Ayckbourn. "It's a joy"
Indeed it is. Orvin - Champions Of Champions is a highly humorous musical tale of accidental heroism that gives the cream of Britain's young musical theatre talent the chance to work with the master writer-director. In turn, Ayckbourn reunites with Denis King, after collaborating on the family musical, Whenever, in 2000.
A hot Saturday threatened to turn even hotter when a fire alarm went off, delaying the performance by half an hour. However, Ayckbourn's young company was straight into its stride, led by the celestial chorus - dressed like pop choir The Polyphonic Spree - as they issued their decrees from on high in The Round seating.
Inspiration for this mock-epic drama comes from old-style Hollywood heroic adventures with a side salad of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Asterix, Blackadder and Frankie Howerd, yet the wit is unmistakably Ayckbourn at his most playful.
His "hero" is the underdog figure of Orvin (Tim Webb), hopeless squire to the Great Ulmar, champion warrior of Sollistis, whose story is being introduced by the celestial chorus of gods when their narrative is spectacularly de-railed by Orvin.
He oversleeps on the eve of battle, and times his apology at the worst moment, distracting Ulmar just as a dagger is on the point of terminating him. Exit Ulmar, leaving the celestial storytellers to re-write page one with Orvin cast as the unlikeliest, most reluctant of champions. They must work in tandem, with only Orvin able to hear them, a conduit for puzzled comedy in the tradition of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.
Webb's Orvin is amusingly dopey: forced into the limelight; forced into a union with the spoilt Princess Delcine (Georgina White, great jazz-blues voice; fascinating face); and forced into duels with her lover, the death-obsessed poet Lord Varian (Ben Beechey) and Delcine's fiery brother Prince Dedrick (Dominic Tighe, whose constantly interrupted song is well worth the wait). All Orvin wants is Ola, the lovely Cockney maid with the saucy tongue (Anja Rodford).
The crème de la crème is Simon Eves' henchman, Skeets, the Baldrick of this champion piece with his exquisite comic timing."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 11 August 2003)
Young Stars Prove Ayckbourn's Still The Reigning Champion (by Lynda Murdin)
"For those of us who have few dealings with young people, this musical commissioned from Alan Ayckbourn by the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) comes as a revelation.
Contrary to everything we're led to believe, it proves not all youngsters are junkies, joyriders or hormone-fuelled surly Kevins (as in comedian Harry Enfield's creation). Some members of this dreaded sector of society actually have theatrical skills! And this divinely daft show, set in medieval times and involving knights in not-so-shining armour, minor gods, a lovelorn princess and scheming servants, provides a super showcase for their burgeoning talent.
Fear ye not that such a farcical spoof on ancient legends might have greater appeal for children than adults. It contains many examples of the playwright's famous wit as well as other hallmarks familiar from his mainstream plays - strong female characters, tangled relationships, a bed (naturally here a four-poster) as a central feature, and some tinkering with the passage of time.
There's also an entertainingly eclectic mix of musical styles from composer Denis King. So altogether Ayckbourn's 65th work, which is more grown-up than his Christmas family shows but still fun rather than psychologically probing, is what's nowadays called "kidult," meaning it satisfies both. Also directed by Ayckbourn, the SJT's long-standing artistic director, it features 40 NYMT members from all over the country. Young people - it also becomes clear as they fill the Round's stage with an unusual abundance of characters and overflow into the aisles - come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are great big strapping ones, small wiry ones and some somewhere in between, their physical differences not necessarily being dependent on age.
In the best knockabout tradition, Ayckbourn makes quite a thing of size. For example, our anti-hero Orvin (17-year-old Tim Webb) is like a beguiling mop-haired elf in his brown tights and suede tunic. Through a series of accidents, he becomes betrothed to Princess Decline who is as statuesque and lovely as model Rachel Hunter in this portrayal by Georgina White. Can White, deliberately hamming up the humour with mature skill, really be only 16?)
Describing how we reach this betrothal and a dangerous accusation that the princess has been "besmirched" could here sound as complex as reading Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon. But it all makes perfect sense at the time because the audience is led through the plot's medieval machinations, as intricately woven as chain mail, by a celestial chorus of 12 gods sitting on a separate high platform.
The choir initially sings in portentous tones about the long-drawn bitter conflict between two great nations and starts to relate the tale of the Great Ulmar, champion of the Sollists. But their words don't suit the actions unfolding on stage. Ulmar is killed by a warrior from Varne because Orvin, his squire, overslept. "Orvin - you half wit," are his dying words.
It's a shame that means an early exit for David Moss whose mock heroic expressions and swaggering movements as the legendary warrior indicate a confident stage presence. But the champion is dead, long live the champion. Even though the helmet doesn't fit, the choir insists this is a story that has to be told. Orvin who needs to stand on a tree-trunk to argue with the singers must take Ulmar's place. He reluctantly assumes a false identity and travels to the court of the elderly ruler of Varne. There he falls in love not with the princess but Ola, her pint-sized maid. Meanwhile, dastardly schemes are being cooked up by the Baldrick-like Prince Dedrick, the princess's black-hearted brother (Dominic Tighe in fine Richard III mode) and Skeets, his servile henchman.
Played with a wonderful weasel voice by Simon Eves, the skinny Skeets is a slightly camp comic creation in the best tradition of Carry On movies. As Ola, Anja Rodford projects a winning combination of wide-eyed innocence and Cockney street wisdom. Her main songs, expertly delivered, could come straight out of Oliver! and she and Webb share one particularly lyrical love duet. Elsewhere, King's score has echoes of Stephen Sondheim, an insistent rhythm helping drive the action along. At other times, the music could stem from the pen of Richard Rodgers or now and again, Arthur Sullivan. But where among so many pastiches is the individual sound of Denis King?
As the performers are so different physically, the big musical numbers couldn't hope to have the slick uniformity of a professional show. But they have gusto. And Ayckbourn, clearly determined to make the most of a large cast after years of writing to budget, marshals them effectively. A particularly amusing dance sequence involving a drunken Orvin makes you think a few more opportunities for cast members to demonstrate their dance skills might not have gone amiss - but then you can't expect two old guys like Ayckbourn and King to remember everything.
This represents a successful theatrical amalgam of their professional experience and the NYMT's bright young talents. In fact, Orvin - Champion of Champions is, to use the vernacular, right champion."
(Yorkshire Post, 11 August 2003)
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