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The Young Visiters
The Hen and Chickens
7th June 2013

★★★★☆

Children say the funniest things. And sometimes, if we're lucky, they write them down too. The Young Visiters is a funny tale about the upper class in late 19th-century England, made all the more impressive by the revelation that it was written by Daisy Ashford when she was only nine years old, a young playwright by anyone's standards.

The ensemble

Photography supplied by Rough Haired Pointer

Forgotten about for the better part of three decades by everyone - including Ashford herself - when her novella was finally published after the Great War it went to print in its original unedited form. The story is therefore full of all the honesty and directness you would expect of a child, with no redactions for politeness' sake. It has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, and even goes as far as to pass comment on social class and ambition.

As the narrator (Sophie Crawford) tells us, when Bernard Clark (Toby Osmond) writes to Mr Salteena (Tom Richards) and invites him to come to visit, bringing "one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face", an adventure begins in which Mr Salteena, a man of somewhat humble origins, tries to improve himself to win over the heart of his good friend Ethel Monticue (Marianne Chase). Mr Salteena is helped by the Earl of Clincham (Andrew Brock) and his groom of chambers, Edward Procurio (Leo Marcus Wan). Along the way, in his bid to hit the dizzying heights of high society, he even crosses paths with the Prince of Wales (Oscar Rickett).

It's a great piece of writing to work with, but credit must be given to how director Mary Franklin has managed to bring out the humour of Ashford's words. The Young Visiters, after all, is a novella not a play, and as such, has no helpful stage directions or consideration for blocking. The opening breakfast scene with Mr Salteena and Ethel may be recited word for word, but it's made hilarious due to the comic timing the pair employ, the choice of props and how Ethel exaggerates her lines, pulling faces. There's a clear vision - Franklin has kept the childlike charm of Ashford's writing, but polished the delivery.

And this is nowhere more evident than in the set design from Carin Nakanishi. It's delightfully ambitious for a venue of this size. Moveable partitions, including a door frame deliberately too short for the majority of cast members, are all frequently pushed around to change the setting. Envelopes are stylised, with thick black outlines and curly handwriting. Signs are clipped to trouser hangers - a brilliantly whimsical touch - and hooked over walls or held up by our helpful narrator. Nakanishi's set is everything a young girl could dream up, and wonderfully accomplished.

The ensemble

Photography supplied by Rough Haired Pointer

The wallpaper and curtains - yes, somehow they've managed to fit curtains into the Hen and Chickens - would not look out of place in an old stately home. And the narrator wears a quirky dress which looks like it has been made out of similar patterns. It's a playful touch, and also allows Crawford to blend into the background and disappear whenever her narration isn't required. But when she does speak, she brings charm to the proceedings, this is a worthy role.

Indeed, the cast all do a fine job, but it was Wan who stood out for us in his main role, as well as his bit parts as the footman and a genteel lady. No matter who he was playing, he treated the audience to some wonderfully daft, over-the-top looks, bouncing off the other actors well and even throwing in the odd bit of ad-lib. Wan certainly has a gift for comedy and is a very versatile performer.

Mr Salteena is, by Ashford's own decree, the "hero" of the play, so it's refreshing that he doesn't quite ride off into the sunset on a white pony. Ashford has rather more originality than that. It's time to mention again her young age when she penned this. Amazing stuff.

This is undeniably a great piece of writing that Rough Haired Pointer have adapted into a great production. It's paced well, with solid laughs from start to finish - proof that talent can shine through at any age.

The Young Visiters ran from 4th to 15th June 2013 at the Hen and Chickens.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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