The Dark Tower – Youth Music Theatre UK – CLF Arts Cafe, Peckham

The Dark Tower - no titleThe Dark Tower was performed by Youth Music Theatre UK at CLF Arts Café, Bussey Building, Peckham, London.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

First performed three years ago at Riverside Studios London, composer and librettist Conor Mitchell’s The Dark Tower takes its inspiration from Robert Browning’s 1855 poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. But where Browning ended when the protagonist reaches the Dark Tower, Mitchell’s show sees its central character ascend to the top of the tower and hence fulfil his destiny.

The Bussey Building’s CLF Arts Cafe is ideally suited to Youth Music Theatre’s presentation of The Dark Tower as an immersive promenade piece, in which we are invited to follow the hero’s journey upwards through the three storeys. The audience quickly becomes used to being gently ushered around the stage and, indeed, starts to question whether they have themselves become inadvertent participants in the performance.

The metaphorical aspects of Mitchell’s work, in which the protagonist is recast as a soldier mobilised for action, thereby assume a literal dimension as well. Nonetheless, elements such as the journey through the tower, the overcoming of the monster, and ultimately the passing of the hero all resonate powerfully, as The Dark Tower poses profound questions about how generation after generation of soldiers is sent to war in the name of ideology or patriotism, locked in an endless cycle of duty and death.

Youth Music Theatre’s company of some 40 talented individuals aged 11-21 from across the UK bring the show to life with maturity and precision, the effectiveness of their movement leaving a particularly striking impression. As a uniformly strong cast, it is foremostly as an ensemble that they are presented to the audience, with every performer being identically attired.

The sole exception is the soldier dressed for combat on whom the work centres, a role realised with admirable stamina and conviction by Liam Morris. Many cast members similarly stand out for their individual contributions, including Henry Waddon’s emotive portrayal of the traitor during the Level 1 segment, and, for her combination of fine vocals and evocative choreography, Laura Fulgenzi as the vulture-like monster on Level 2.

Mitchell’s contemporary classical score, with its wealth of sung harmonies and independent lines, is robustly executed by the cast under the musical direction of Richard Healey and orchestral supervisor Francis Goodhand. Of the six-piece pit band, special mention should be made of the two keyboardists (Sarah Burrell and Megan Hilling) for providing firm accompanimental foundations throughout, and of Cat Johnston for her poignant trumpet solos.

Rachel Birch-Lawson’s direction is impeccably devised so as to manage the complex movements of the cast – not to mention the audience – around the 360-degree stages. Full credit should also be given to the technical teams who ably navigate the substantial challenge of the ambitious three-storey presentation, as well as designer Sophie Barlow’s impressive sets across such an unusual theatrical canvas.

Youth Music Theatre’s production of The Dark Tower demonstrates the work’s themes of the inevitability of conflict and the destiny of the soldier to be as relevant today as to the medieval setting of Browning’s original poem. The remarkable accomplishments of its young cast in realising such a sophisticated theatrical piece so successfully are set in still greater relief with the knowledge that they are the result of just two weeks’ rehearsal.

Christopher Wiley

Readers may also be interested in:

What I Go to School For – The Busted Musical – Youth Music Theatre UK – Theatre Royal Brighton – Review


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