In a world premiere brought to life by the National Youth Musical Theatre at the Leicester Curve, “The Boy who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair” emerges as a heartfelt and ambitious musical adaptation of Lara Williamson’s beloved novel. Written and composed by talented newcomer Jordan Li-Smith, the production showcases potential to become a heartwarming gem with a gifted cast of triple-threat performers, enchanting musical motifs, thoughtful choreography, and stunning vocal harmonies. While the musical’s strengths are undeniable, it still navigates some narrative and character development hurdles that, with time, could be honed to elevate the emotional depth of the story.
The musical’s ambitious narrative, centred around themes of loss, family, and the power of stories, unfolds through the lens of Becket and his brother Billy. The cast, a constellation of young performers, proves to be the driving force behind the production’s charm and energy. The entire ensemble enhance the show, continually contributing distinctive performances that lend both authenticity and depth to their respective roles.
Sam Carter’s portrayal of Becket Rumsey is a testament to his undeniable skill as a talented young performer. He commands the stage with his powerful voice and clear presence. With remarkable vocal prowess, he effortlessly delivers a large number of the show’s songs, infusing them with emotion. His performance captures Becket’s journey of self-discovery and the complexities of dealing with loss, leaving a lasting impact on the audience. This young star is one to watch!
Billy, played by another young and remarkably talented performer, James Breen, enchants with his exceptional voice, and his energetic dancing skills become a highlight of the show. His ability to seamlessly transition between singing and dancing showcases his versatility as a triple threat, engaging the audience and contributing to the show’s vibrant atmosphere.
As Becket and Billy’s Dad, Oliver Futcher delivers a convincing and nuanced performance, able to delicately balance and navigate his character’s complexities. However, the absence of a solo number hampers the potential exploration of the domestic violence undertones with this character. The subtlety of these references, while well-intentioned, fail to fully convey the gravity and weight of such an important issue.
Ibiza Nana and Brian the Snail, performed by Alex Absalom-Sanchez and Bill Stanley respectively, provide a delightful comedic contrast to the emotional depth of the narrative. Alex Absalom-Sanchez infuses the character of Ibiza Nana with lively energy and humor, becoming a source of laughter for the audience. Likewise, Bill Stanley’s portrayal of Brian the Snail adds a touch of whimsy to the story, leaving the audience charmed and entertained by the character’s unique charm and personality.
Olivia Spillane possesses an outstanding voice as Cat, delivering with both power and emotion. Her exceptional vocal ability captures the essence of a rising star. This promise of future greatness is a testament to Olivia Spillane’s skill and irrefutable presence on stage.
The role of Becket and Billy’s Mum may have limited opportunities throughout the show, but her impact is undeniable. Charley Lawrenson’s impressive and emotive vocal delivery, particularly towards the end of the production, leaves a poignant impression, underscoring the emotional journey of the character and adding a layer of depth to her performance.
Pearl, portrayed with profound nuance by Lily Copland-Jones, brings a layered complexity to her role. Copland-Jones’ characterisation highlights Pearl’s emotional struggles and growth, adding depth to the character’s interactions and relationships with the rest of the cast. Her exceptional voice further contributes to the emotional resonance of her character’s arc.
Director Hannah Chissick’s vision is evident in the clever choreography from Steve Kirkham brought to life by the talented cast, with standout moments in dance sequences that elevate the storytelling. There are so many elements of the show’s choreography and movement which are simply genius. Watching how characters do or don’t engage with choreography is excellent.
Nic Farman’s lighting design is beautiful, offering enchanting moments on the stage. Richard Cooper’s set and use of a giant armchair is versatile and offers great potential for this to develop as the show further evolves. Music direction and orchestrations from Lewis Bell, Ben Ferguson and Alex Faulkner help this musical sound fantastic and allow the band to shine.
The real star of this musical is Jordan Li-Smith who has created a fantastic musical here which oodles of potential. There is gorgeous music, beautiful lyrics and some real witty elements to the book (helped partly from the original source material of Lara Williamson). Li-Smith‘s vision and ability cements himself as one to watch for future new musicals. I look forward to following his journey with either this musical or another (or both!).
Despite the show’s promising elements, certain songs could be identified as potential candidates for removal. With such an abundance of songs, some are superfluous to the narrative or lyrically aren’t as strong as other numbers in the show. There are a few areas which will inevitably get tightened or cut as this musical progresses. The show could benefit from a clear streamlining of the narrative and the removal of some of the more minor characters who are undeveloped and do not significantly impact or add to the plot.
The musical adaptation presents an opportunity to delve into the themes of parental bereavement and domestic abuse. However, these are sadly underdeveloped. There are many opportunities to fix this. Sadly, the female-on-male domestic abuse storyline present in the original source material wasn’t fully clear or realised. A lack of clarity or development for such an important conversation tackled within this adaptation seems to be an unfortunate oversight. Careful consideration must be made in taking on a responsibility to discuss, or allude to, such acute themes to appropriately facilitate this line of discourse.
In conclusion, “The Boy who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair” at the Leicester Curve marks a significant milestone for its writer and composer Jordan Li-Smith. The cast’s outstanding performances, coupled with the enchanting music and choreography, create an engaging theatrical experience. While certain narrative and character development issues persist, the musical’s potential to evolve and mature is undeniable. As it continues its journey, the show could further harness its strengths and ability to deliver a poignant and emotionally resonant production that captures the hearts of audiences. I look forward to following this show, its journey and its performers.
The Boy who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair plays at the Leicester Curve until 19th August 2023. Tickets available from £10.