23 August 2015
It was a sultry summer Swindon afternoon when I went to see the Wyvern’s summer youth project and their production of Hairspray. Nevertheless the theatre was pretty well packed to the gills. No doubt mostly proud relatives of those taking part. And that’s as it should be.
In all my years in Swindon I’ve not attended a Summer Youth Project performance before so had no real idea what to expect.
What my companion and I got was a seeming cast of thousands on a scale possibly not seen since The Greatest Story Ever Told. And that’s kind of appropriate. Because ‘Hairpray’ is a great story to tell.
The summer youth project is both a fabulous vehicle with which to tell it as well as being a great opportunity for all the wonderful young performers to gain theatre experience – and perhaps a history lesson too?
In all the great musicals, beneath the catchy, toe-tapping songs and colourful costumes and backdrops, there are dark and adult themes. One notable example being SouthPacific – a show that explores racial prejudice through the romantic relationships in its plot line. I was a young child in the 1960s and remember being very affected by the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught“.
‘Hairpray’ is no exception to this rule. So beneath the riot of petticoats, dirndl skirts,waspie belts, neckerchiefs, shiny suits and big hair styles runs a theme of racial segregation in 1960s America. Along with somewhat more minor commentary on size and the superficiality of judging people on appearance: ‘Tracey I’m in love with you no matter what you weigh’. But then, given the issues we are encountering in society today with eating disorders and obesity perhaps not so minor after all. Given that, sadly and staggeringly, some forty years after the period Hairspray is set in none of those things has gone away.
However, to return to the production. The title ‘Summer Youth Project’ rather gives the impression that it runs the whole summer. But not a bit of it. The whole thing is put together in only two weeks.
As it says in the programme: ‘The Summer Youth Project happens here every year and involves around 200 young people, both on and off stage, and in this 22nd year, we are delighted to be working once again with a professional creative team.’
As well as all the participants drawn from what seems to be a cornucopia of performing arts schools in Swindon (of various types) the Sixth Sense Theatre company was involved too. Founded in 1986, the SST is Swindon’s only professional theatre company. They began making plays for schools and still receive financial support from Swindon Borough Council.
So it’s incredible that the whole thing was put together in a fortnight. I am in awe!
The stage set with its depictions of vinyl records and psychedelic patterns took me right back to my 1960s childhood where that style of pop culture iconography figured large.
It’s a shame that the first half was marred a little with microphone problems as a lot got lost. But never mind – all was fine in the second half.
There were some great voices and smashing performances. Not that I’m any Quentin Letts but I was particularly impressed with Rebecca Honeybun as Penny Pringleton. I thought she gave a fine performance. As did of course the lead vocals. They/you were all terriffic.
The layout of the Wyvern is ideal for making the most of the aforementioned cast of thousands and this production did just that filling the aisles with singing, dancing, petticoated youngsters. It was lovely.
So from me it’s a huge and impressed well-done to absolutely everyone involved. Clearly the Summer Youth Project is an annually amazing achievement and fab launchpad for Swindon’s abundant young talent.
And finally – because you really can’t stop the beat! Either of this musical or the Wyvern Summer Youth Project.