REVIEW: Barrack Room Ballads

"It’s an unlikely proposition – a musical version of a set of poems by (deeply unfashionable) Rudyard Kipling performed by 34 teenagers with a seven-piece live band in a tiny space not really designed for theatre. But it comes off in spades.

Timed to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, this 60-minute show is as moving as it is slickly directed by Conor Mitchell who also composed it, with strong rhythmic choreography by Richard Chappell.

We open with a rallying, slightly defensive speech by Kipling himself and then it’s on to settings of the poems which all, one way or another, note, celebrate or lament the common soldier.

The tiny rectangular playing space, with orchestra sandwiched in alongside it is overlooked by galleries within the museum. That means that the audience is seated and performers are positioned on seven levels and half levels. There’s a lot of height but not much width.

The young people are dressed mostly in plain white which reflects the imaginative lighting (designed by Els Berghardt and Declan Kelly) reflects fascinatingly off it ranging from a gingham effect to bright coloured flushes.

Mitchell’s music is as tuneful as it is evocative – much of it firmly inspired by the music hall style and which is, of course, right in period. There’s more than a whiff of Walton’s ‘Façade’ in some numbers too.

The show proposes that music is essential to survival and sanity and that every soldier needs a song. The lilting ‘Pass the Hat’ which shifts rhythmically from 4/4 to 6/8 is delightful. So is the Sullivan-esque song for two men confined to barracks for being “drunk and resisting the guard”.

There are some good cameo performances in this show and plenty for everyone to do although it’s firmly an ensemble piece with the cast listed in the programme rather than credited with individual roles.

Few people who see this show will forget the expression on the face of the boy who plays the hapless Danny Deever – to be famously hanged in the morning.

Part of the poignancy lies in the age of the performers –  only a year or two younger, in many cases, than the soldiers they are portraying.

The orchestra does a grand job, especially in the vamp numbers and the link music which requires anxious “chattering”, but there are occasional cohesion problems with singers, largely I think, because constraints of the space mean that the young cast cannot see MD Alex Bellamy.

It’s an impressive, quite original theatrical idea which sits conceptually, and very thoughtfully, somewhere between Cats and Oh, What a Lovely War! Well done, Youth Music Theatre UK."