Orvin - Champion of Champions

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, music by Denis King
In collaboration with the National Youth Music Theatre
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

As I arrived in the foyer on the first floor of the SJT, there was already a large crowd of people waiting, and a buzz of expectation in the air. I overheard a knowledgeable person telling someone less knowledgeable: "Any minute now, those doors are going to open, and ...", but I didn't quite catch the rest of it, so I kept my eyes on the all-important doors, aware that something out of the ordinary was about to happen.

And lo! Indeed the portals did open, and there I saw a Celestial Chorus, who did sing to us an hymn of welcome, then did betake themselves off into the theatre, whereupon we all did follow. And when I reached my own appointed seat, behold, they were seated right across from me, like unto a choir in a Congregational church, but with an un-Congregational-looking harpist in the midst of them. Now, how ever did I get myself into that pseudo-archaic lingo? Let's see if a new paragraph will get me back on track ...

The show begins with an impressively choreographed battle, which is 'supervised' by the Celestial Chorus who, like a collective official historian, dictate how the 'legend' of Ulmar is to be played out - the only problem being that in the 'real world' Ulmar gets killed accidentally in the first five minutes! Orvin, his unheroic squire, is forced to stand in for him, and the frequent disparities between official legend and ordinary reality are what give the show its humour.

In the associated talk, we were told how the cast of 40 was arrived at after audition 'heats' all over the country, followed by two weekends in London where about 200 aspiring young performers were put through their paces. Not surprisingly in view of this rigorous selection process, the cast is strong. Tim Webb plays Orvin, the unlikely hero, with quiet modesty and humour. Dominic Tighe plays the resident villain, Prince Dedrick, as a kind of tall, able-bodied Richard III, plotting to gain the throne for himself at all costs - he will even kill his own sister if he has to. King Albern is played by the 18-year-old Jonathan Scott - an amazingly convincing portrayal of a doddery old man, complete with long white beard, shuffling gait and wavering voice; the 'real' Jonathan Scott who took part in the talk was, by comparison, totally unrecognisable. Georgina White plays Princess Delcine as a delightfully conceited and spoilt young lady. Her lover, Lord Varian, played by Ben Beechey, is yet another unheroic hero who faints at the sight of blood. Ola, Delcine's maid, is played by Anja Rodford - the Cockney accent, apparently not her native one, is very convincing, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her playing Eliza Doolittle (the play, the musical, or both!) in a few years. Ola and Orvin quickly become an item, despite everything standing in their way - aaaaah!

The story culminates in a parody of the duel scene from Hamlet, between Orvin and the much bigger and stronger Dedrick. Ayckbourn improves on Shakespeare by adding to the poisoned sword and poisoned drink a booby-trapped throne and a heart attack. Thus, in a neat reversal of fate, the romantic couple survive, to be crowned King and Queen - well, no-one else was left!

The reluctant hero who wins out agains all the forces of ignorance and evil is a heartwarming theme which gives this show great charm. The medieval settting reminded me briefly of the film of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, as well as those modern rewrites of fairy stories from Cinderella to Snow White in which the traditional conventions are comically undermined: the heroes aren't very brave, and the beautiful maidens aren't very demure. It all adds up to an ideal family show, whether for a seaside resort at holiday time or a big city in the pantomime season, and I very much hope Orvin will be revived before too long.

Reviewer: Gill Stoker

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