Robert Martin Theatre, Loughborough.
"13", written by Jason Robert Brown, is all about approaching 13 years old for Evan Golding as he grapples with his parents' divorce, prepares for his impending Bar Mitzvah, and navigates the complicated social circles of a new school. He wants his party to be the best ever and to achieve this he has to have all the popular kids there but his best friend at his new school is one of the town's "freaks", as the other kids label Patrice; well we all know how spiteful and cruel kids of that age can be, Evan tries to fit in but along the way makes a few errors of judgement along the way.
Performed by Bright Lights Theatre School Performing Arts, which is an offshoot of the Bright Lights Theatre School, this is their debut show, and what a debut. Produced by Nick Sutcliffe and Patrick Croft and directed and choreographed by Nick Sutcliffe, this is one of the lighter of Jason Robert Brown's musicals and all the cast members are about the age of the characters in the musical, which is good to have age appropriation when nailing roles. And nail them they did....
James King, who played Evan, really embraced the role and has great confidence. Match that with a really strong voice, and lets's face it with him featuring in the majority of the songs in the show, he'd need to. He also has the makings of quite a good dancer, coping with the choreography of the musical well with a natural ability. A good array of emotions shown as he deals with comedy and the more serious side of the impending Jewish teenager.
Evan's new friend in the town where he's been forced to uproot to, labelled the "lamest place in the world" by Patrice, who we quickly see has a crush on him, is played by the instantly likeable Hannah Bailey, who also has a very strong voice. She is the labelled "freak" because she doesn't fit into the "in crowd" and you find yourself rooting for her because of her loyalty and her non agenda attitude.
The other "freak" is Archie, who has a degenerative illness and walks with aids. Patrice is his best, and only friend and sticks up for her when Evan humiliates her in public. He guilt trips Evan into arranging a date with the "hot" girl in school, Kendra. Archie is a brilliant comedy role and Daniel Robinson is a cracking young actor with a mature sense of comic timing. He waited just long enough for the laughs to subside before delivering his next line in one part, where some may have steamed in with the next line before waiting. He has a natural comedy feel for the role and again, you find yourself getting behind him and laughing with Archie, and not at Archie.
The "jock" of this piece is Brett. Evan knows that if he can get Brett to come to the party then all of the kids will follow like sheep. Brett wants a date with Kendra and Evan arranges this for him, but all does not go to plan. He gets his first kiss at the theatre but not with who he was expecting it to be with. Charlie Stackhouse plays Brett and his two lackeys, Malcolm and Eddie played, again with a lovely comedy feel by Matthew Kingsbury and Billy Harris respectively. Just listen to "Hey Kendra" which highlights the comedy in these three characters.
Kendra and her best friend Lucy are perfectly cast. Played by Lydia Tyler and Sophie Draycott, they both have lovely voices, both quite contemporary which is just what a musical like this requires. Lydia and fellow cast member Katie Lavine, who plays Charlotte, also choreograph the cheerleader dance "Opportunity", showing another string to their bows.
The whole cast work really well together and are totally believable as a group and they look like they are having a ball out there. The passion, energy and enthusiasm shine through, and there's so much talent here that i would be very surprised if many of these kids don't go on to etch out a career in performing arts. The ensemble pieces were well choreographed and well performed.
Getting the mix of band sound to singer/actor is always an issue, and while there was a few moments where the band slightly overpowered the singers, what I did notice was the band, under the expert direction of Peter Fines, drew back on the volume during the show, which helped the enjoyment of the musical. It's very often only on opening night, when the theatre is full, that you can get that mix right, so it is a fine line but they got it, crisp and clear.
As director of the show, Nick has brought out the very essence of the troubles of approaching teenage years in the cast and the hard work from all involved is evident. A brilliant comedy, well acted, well sung, and the comedy lyrics were understood and delivered knowledgeably by the cast.
The stories and situations here are ageless and we've all been there, but if you want to relive them all over again, "13" is at the Robert Martin Theatre at Loughborough University 23 March 2016.