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Simply Fabulous Dahling

 ← Yes, look.

Here is where NOT BAd found itself last night – Alnwick Playhouse, a full 45 minutes down the A1 in a direction so southerly it’s almost abroad.  We had to hold our nose and blow as we entered Denwick Lane.

You’re undoubtedly thinking – “Is there no limit to the lengths NOT BAd will go in seeking out am-dram; no deed too extreme?”  

And after quick consideration, we all agree our limit is animals.  Not even cute ones that look like really tiny Daniel Craigs.

But, of course, Alnwick Theatre Club’s production of Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ is all about animals.  Pheasants, to be precise.  And Danny is a boy, so right off we found ourselves on opening night caught in the middle of a perilous animal/child pincer movement. 

But before we start, is everyone familiar with the story of ‘Danny the Champion of the World’? 

Briefly, Danny is a nine-year-old boy who since his mother’s death has lived with his father, William, in a gypsy caravan.  William owns and runs a garage but falls foul of local landlord and bully, Victor Hazell, who wages a campaign against Danny and William to get them kicked off their land.  Danny discovers that his dad is a poacher and, indeed, rescues him in the middle of the night from a man-pit dug by Hazell’s gamekeepers. To even the score and humiliate Hazell, the pair devise a plan to sabotage the annual pheasant-shoot hosted by Hazell to impress the local dignitaries.  Are they successful?  Will they be able to save their home and livelihood? 

Suffice to say it’s a wonderful, uplifting story of a close relationship between father and son, and !!SPOILER!! of good trouncing evil.

The curtain went up to an almost-full house – on a Tuesday, would you believe? – the audience made up of Dahl fans old and new.  After a wobbly first few minutes, the actors remembered to breathe, hit their stride, and were off.

While we recognise all the actors delivered a good turn, here at NOT BAd we shall continue our tradition of handing out garlands to those who truly shone.

Twelve-year-old lead, Alex Clark Thompson, really had his work cut out and not simply because of the phenomenal number of lines he had to learn.  The character demanded an emotional range not many performers of Alex’s age could pull off, but Alex rose to the occasion, fully coming into his own in the second act as he engaged with the audience with a wicked twinkle and no trace of that on-stage self-consciousness many children acquire.  He should feel justifiably proud.

Tony Neale oozed venom as villainous Victor Hazell, and the breezy naturalism of Robin Lewsey as Sergeant Samways was a total joy.  Scene stealers both, and NOT BAd reckons that between them they must have notched up some serious stage time over the years.  Utterly professional.

Now, NOT BAd is struggling.  We’ve wrestled with it.  We’ve hmm’d, we’ve hawed, we’ve bitten our knuckles, and yet…  the fact remains.  Oliver Pusey as William Smith, Danny’s father-cum-poacher was the wrong kind of sexy. 

There, we said it.

We are all in agreement at NOT BAd HQ that Danny’s dad was our first crush before the Six Million Dollar Man.  He was kind and warm, but unpredictable with a nose for mischief, and best of all he had a dead wife.  That’s all any girl wants in a man. 

Now we’re older, of course, we recognise the glint in William’s eye as shorthand for too much whisky by a fireside and an illegitimate baby nine months later, but at the time and having no other point of reference to work by, we disturbingly confused a life on benefits with wanting him to be our dad.

Don’t misunderstand, Oliver is good and obviously knows his way around a stage, but bottom line?  He lacked this edge.  Come on, Oliver!   There’s a gypsy caravan on stage!   Live the dream! 

1.   Wear the neckerchief/waistcoat combo.

2.  Desultorily poke a fire.

3.  Be David Essex.

Oliver made a schoolboy error by serving his beans on a plate.  Madness, pure and simple.  Nobody’s going to get an unsuitable crush on a fictional character who puts his beans on a plate; poachers eat them straight from a saucepan.  That’s just another dangerous fact of gypsy law.

Oliver gave his character heart and proper dad-ness, but a disappointing lack of idle possibility.   We recognise this may well be us… it is, isn’t it?  Us? 

This was an amateur production with a professional sensibility.  Director Peter Biggers and his team took on the enormity of the task with aplomb.  Grinning stupidly at the stage, we applauded the use of projection scenes and videos and how they kept the stage free while creating atmosphere.   We won’t spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen the play but, wow, those pheasants!   

A lovely touch was the off-season audience participation.  With a family audience it would have been easy for the play to become casualty to numerous trips to the loo and industrial-scale sweet-eating, but involving us in the show ensured the smaller ones stayed rapt and fully engaged for the duration. 

Actually, even the older members of the audience got involved.  After William was stretchered off-stage with an injured ankle following his fall into Hazell’s man-pit, there was an audible crash in the wings.  “Oh, poor man,” said the elderly lady in front of us. “He’s done his leg n’all.”

Sound effects were used to great effect, and together with the complicated lighting design and rapid set change-overs, Stage Manager Lisa Gladstone and her team had their work cut out co-ordinating everything so smoothly.  Well done, what an achievement!

The whoop and wave of warm affection that rushed from the audience towards the stage when William cried the final words “Champion of the world!” we hope conveyed to the entire cast and crew just what a terrific job they did of a much-loved story.

One of the best community theatre has to offer.  Simply fabulous Dahling.

Alnwick Theatre Club presents Danny the Champion of the World, Alnwick Playhouse, 7.30pm,  16th–19th August 2011

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