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Another Dummy Run for the Dummy Tree

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Conor Mitchell is one our most promising musical theatre writers, but he shows too many signs of remaining just that.

A new production of his short, sub-Sondheim threnody for lost childhood, The Dummy Tree, playing at the tiny Tristan Bates theatre — situated with significant poignancy opposite the Really Useful Group headquarters in Tower Street — is no more “sorted” a piece than it was at the National Theatre “Connections” season two years ago.

And the conscious echoes of Into the Woods are a little unfortunate as that edgy masterpiece is currently playing — between monsoons — in the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park.

Still, the Youth Music Theatre UK (controversial offshoot of the National Youth Music Theatre), who in fact first work-shopped the piece in the National Theatre studio, give it their best shot in Stuart Harvey’s production.

But there are still far too may loose ends in the narrative, and too much aimless treading of water in the music. Mitchell is good at Sondheim-ish dissonance and follows his example of littering the score with recurring motifs.

None of it sounds truly organic. And it’s too close to a model to assume a real life of its own. And anyway, I’d rather see a company like the YMT going at full blast with a full stage of youngsters, not fiddling about in the murky waters of teenage angst and burgeoning adult misery.

The show has to be as good as the musical Spring Awakening to succeed in those spheres, as the recent outstanding revival in Edinburgh by the students of the Royal Scottish Academy confirmed.

It’s high time Mitchell had a West End musical of his own, and perhaps that will happen with his ongoing collaboration with Mark Ravenhill, or a new porject he’s undertaken in Plymouth with the YMT UK using the George Gershwin song catalogue and the composer’s enthusiasm for many of the dancing girls in his shows.

At the moment he’s in a sort of Stiles and Drewe limbo of busy under-achievement. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…but you can’t go on doing workshops and youth theatre projects for ever, can you?

I’m not sure how I feel about the YMT UK’s own West End aspirations. One of last summer’s productions, James Bourne’s Loserville the Musical — set in an imaginary US town in the 1970s — has been optioned by producer Kevin Wallace, he of Lord of the Rings infamy and other so-so to fairly warm successes.

Surely the future of youth theatre companies and the West End musical are two completely different things, or should be, but in this, as in so much else, I look forward to being proved hopelessly wrong.  

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