If men and women were butterflies, then teenagers would be the caterpillars: self-contained, just a little awkward, but about to break out and take to the sky. That’s the image at the heart of The Butterfly Catcher, an impressive piece of youth theatre that’s travelled to Brighton from Luton – and which thoroughly deserves its place among the must-see shows of this Fringe. Tackling an issue which few people of any age dare to talk about, it too develops from modest beginnings into a powerful and affecting production.
It’s an unavoidable fact that Next Generation Youth Theatre’s teenage actors aren’t as technically accomplished as their fully-trained peers; and yet, the commitment this young cast show to the nuts and bolts of their craft is genuinely inspiring. Every single one of them fully inhabits their character, and stays in character for every single moment, even when they're not centre stage. That’s a discipline which even some professionals have yet to master, and it's a big part of what makes The Butterfly Catcher such a believable, thought-provoking play.
Writer and director David Lloyd has made the most of that potential, with a script which – though never angsty – is founded on the genuine concerns of younger people. Set in the build-up to a crucial, life-changing set of exams, the play explores the pressures on one particularly gifted student Holly, played with finesse by Laura Kerin. The likeable but awkward Simmy, played by Samuel Edmunds, wants his friendship with Holly to grow into something more, and launches a campaign to highlight the stresses that she and he are under. For each of them, it’s a first-ever act of youthful rebellion… and you sense it can only end badly.
The company tell the story though a series of set-pieces, including a few well-performed musical numbers, a beautifully-lit night at a school prom, and even a blood-stirringly shouty barricade scene (eat your heart out, Les Mis). There's a slight suspicion that some of these scenes are included to showcase particular theatrical skills; but they're integrated into the plot well enough, and the show as a whole does benefit from the variety. In quieter moments there’s plenty of genuine acting talent on display, and Edmunds in particular captures the heartbreak of the final moments with breathtaking poignancy.
From time to time, though, I did wish they'd kick on a little; step up to the next level of development and let go of some of the stereotypes of youth theatre. Chief among these is delivering lines in unison – a device which The Butterfly Catcher employs to an irritating extent, and with variable success. The ensemble members do have individual characters which they imbue with distinctive, recognisable personalities, and I'd have appreciated the chance to get to know them better.
So The Butterfly Catcher isn’t the most sophisticated or technically-polished production you’ll see this May – of course it isn’t – but in the end, it drew something out of me that nobody else has managed this Fringe. Reader, I blubbed; not so much at the sweet tale of young love, as at the flashback to the intolerable stresses of my own younger days. This is a play with a vital message, of clear and urgent relevance to its cast. The best shows are put on by people who have something to say; and The Butterfly Catcher is one of them.