August 12, 2016

The Battle of Boat Makes for a Smooth Sailing Musical at Kingston's Rose Theatre

Friends Frances (Anastasia Martin, far left), Gladys (Lily Caines), Sybil (Sabella Attenburrow), Florence (Marika Karatepeli), and Jack (Ashley MacLauchlan) receive a letter from William (Jonty Peach, far right), who is serving during World War I, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             The Battle of Boat made its premiere at the Rose Theatre in Kingston last night. This original musical written by composer Ethan Lewis Maltby and lyricist Jenna Donnelly is set in Britain during 1916, in the midst of World War I. Coinciding with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, it explores the way that a group of children make sense of war and how they contribute to the effort in their own, creative, way. In association with the National Youth Music Theatre, the production sets sail on a heartwarming journey, all told through a cast ranging from ages 11 to 19.

             As an Army brat myself (albeit of the American branch), with a father who has been deployed several times, The Battle of Boat takes on a particular significance for me. It is executed with a lucid truthfulness and earnest delivery, with songs that encapsulate that feeling of being helpless (a name given to one of the songs), confused, and frightened in the event of a deployed parent. Regardless of the war or the time period it takes place in, the emotions remain the same. When I was a teenager in high school, I joined a program called Deployment Buddies, where I would visit the nearby elementary school once a month. As “bigs” we interacted with the “littles,” who had one or both parents deployed, to sing songs, share snacks, and create crafts. It wasn’t too dissimilar to the coping skills of the children in the show.

Beagle (left, Luca Panetta), William, and Jack play in the woods, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Florence (Marika Karatepeli) draws a picture for her father, who is off fighting at war, and all she wants is to show it to him. Beagle (Luca Panetta) makes a miniature zeppelin in the hopes that the group of friends can fly to reach William (Jonty Peach) in France, but it goes down (quite literally) like a lead balloon. William is the only one accepted by the Army after they swaddle themselves in oversized clothes and lie about their ages at the enlistment office. They take on their biggest project yet when they decide to build a boat, which Beagle brands unambiguously as “Boat.” To me, this perfectly illustrates the sweet simplicity of children and how their minds work. Unlimited by the constraints that adults place on their own imaginations, children truly believe anything is possible, no matter how farfetched or nonsensical an idea might seem. A group of bullies threatens to overturn the group’s secret, but they won’t go down without a fight on the home front while William is fighting abroad. Hence, The Battle of Boat ensues, with a victorious end for our young defenders.

             The fact that their boat voyage is unsuccessful in making it to France doesn’t really matter, because word reaches William and the rest of the soldiers and it boosts their morale considerably. When my father was deployed in Iraq, my mother would send him care packages, often with home comforts wrapped in lush green grass wrapping paper – a type of vegetation he certainly wasn’t getting in his arid landscape. Sometimes, it is the simplest of gestures that can provide hope during the most difficult of times. In one of William’s letters to his friends, he explains that “little annoyances that used to matter don’t anymore.”

Jimmy Biggs (Bill Stanley, center) attempts to fight off Gripper (Haroun Al Jeddal, far right) and his gang, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Watching Darragh O’Leary’s synchronized choreography is made all the more impressive due to the sizeable cast (almost 30 members), of which there is demonstrable talent. Haroun Al Jeddal as Gripper, the bullies’ gang leader, Bill Stanley as Jimmy Biggs, Anastasia Martin as Frances, William’s sister, and Jacob Edwards as Felix, along with the aforementioned names and the rest of the cast, are clearly all stars in the making. Everyone carries the musical beautifully. The set is scattered with toys, traps, and glowing trees. A billowing blue piece of fabric acts as the ocean’s waves and a metal sheet imitates the sound of thunder. The children’s dynamism and energy is what makes all of these elements come to life.

             The Battle of Boat would be a great introduction to musical theatre for children, while also making war a digestible topic for them. I was worried whether the Grim Reaper, scythe in hand, would rear his ugly head. Luckily, the show manages to skirt around the topic of death, but it is still broached when a furry member of the crew meets an unfortunate end. The song “Funeral For a Friend” could easily be about a person, which makes it all the more heart-rending. However, for each somber moment, there is an equally humorous one (mainly in the form of Beagle’s antics) and it elicits a sigh of relief from the crowd.

The Battle of Boat takes place on the home front, photo courtesy of Matt Hargraves
             Sitting in the theatre, there will have been individuals touched by war, ones who haven’t, and those who have served on the frontline. Regardless of which category you fall into, The Battle of Boat is a musical that the whole family can enjoy and reflect on in different capacities. An elderly gentleman to my left occasionally wiped away tears during the arresting score, while I caught children mimicking moves from the show and singing the catchy and highly inventive lyrics after the show. Surely that’s the highest praise that Maltby and Donnelly, and indeed any writers, could receive. It’s not often that a production can touch an audience cross-generationally, but they’ve pulled it off with smooth sailing.

             The Battle of Boat is showing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until August 13th for its three-day run. To make sure you don’t miss out, book your tickets hereListen to exclusive tracks from the musical here.

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