Camp Phoenix review – an essential firsthand guide to flaming youth

<span>Rebel spirit … David Carpenter, second from left, with a previous non-professional cast in Camp Phoenix.</span><span>Photograph: Phil Crow</span>
Rebel spirit … David Carpenter, second from left, with a previous non-professional cast in Camp Phoenix.Photograph: Phil Crow

In Katie Kirby’s brilliant books about new high-schooler Lottie Brooks, the catastrophe-ridden heroine navigates the constant awks of adolescence with kind and cool tips from a slightly older neighbour. Not everyone is so lucky: it can be hard for younger children to ask the teenagers towering above them about anything, let alone life advice.

But Lincoln-based touring company Zest Theatre have done it for them with Camp Phoenix, developed through conversations with more than 650 young people. The company asked nine-year-olds about their fears and gathered advice from performing arts students around the country, aged 16 and over.

Those students now form a series of regional casts who, after less than a week of rehearsals, join a pair of professional actors in the production. The stage presence of this talented cast from Canterbury College is as impressive as the show’s overall polish.

Katie Greenall’s script, punctuated with catchy songs by Koko Brown, has the rather dystopian setting of a camp that everyone is forced to attend just after they turn 17. They are to engage in a series of activities, from knot-tying to an adventure course, teaching them to fend for themselves. Self-proclaimed odd-one-out Zia (David Carpenter) is the focus and, at first, seems to be a sympathetic nerve-bag, but he is given greater complexity and the other campers are also artfully distinguished, with just a few remaining as thumbnail sketches. They are all taken under the wing of jovial caretaker Les (Duane Gooden) and the only other adult presence comes via crackly PA, with shades of the droning grownups in the Peanuts cartoons.

Brown’s first song, Jump into Adulthood, captures the cohort’s optimism and anxiety, not just about the camp but their rapidly changing lives. The lyrics of Cross It, accompanying the knot-tying scene, have a distilled power and are complemented by arresting movement direction from Phao May. Designer Caitlin Mawhinney makes a forest from wooden planks and fluorescent green tubes, with red and orange sheets suggesting both a campfire glow and a hilly horizon. Throughout, the costumes and set are described by the cast for visually impaired and blind audiences – the type of material that is usually available as separate notes but is here colourfully interwoven into the dialogue.

The storyline craves greater tension – there is little conflict between the young people or with the adults – and the setup is crying out for a more overtly satirical approach in the vein of Molly Davies’s God Bless the Child. But this is an empowering, inclusive play, given an energetic production by Toby Ealden that is perfectly pitched for its target age group (nine to 13). Impressively swerving over-earnestness and the cringe factor, it cannily builds up audience interaction and culminates in a spirit of goodwill and rebellion – and with a humdinger of a show-tune.

• At Barnsley Civic, 29 February, and the Albany, London, 7-8 March