On Sunday I saw Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy by Jonathan Harvey. Performed in the round by The Marlowe Senior Company, this is a new short play and part of this year’s National Theatre Connections, “a national festival of young theatre making.”
The group, aged from 15-21 and directed by the Marlowe’s Head of Creative Projects Danny Lipman, does well with the piece which is about knife crime, sexuality and coming out. All the performances are thoughtfully honed with particularly strong and promising work from Alex Baines as the troubled Scott and Alex Jesperson as the ever-angry Joanne.
NT Connections (formerly Shell Connections) has been running annually for some years now, although this is the first time the Marlowe Theatre – whose youth theatre work is expanding rapidly – has been involved.
Each year, NT commissions established playwrights to write new plays to be performed by young people. For 2013 there are ten, including Mobile Phone Show by Jim Cartwright and Don’t Feed the Animals by Jemma Kennedy, along with the Harvey piece and seven more by writers such as Howard Brenton and Lenny Henry.
Youth groups then apply, a year ahead, to take part. This year there are 230 participating from all over the UK including, for example, Custom House Youth Theatre in South Shields and Fowey Community College.
Each group is assigned one of the ten plays and is provided with supportive resources including a training weekend for the director. It then rehearses and presents a production of the play on its own turf for the local community – like the one I attended on Sunday. The fee paid by a group to take part is £400.
The next stage is a regional festival. 21 venues nationwide host NT Connections events at which some or all of the plays are staged by different groups. The Marlowe, for example, is hosting a three day event from May 6-9 at which five plays will be performed by eight south of England youth groups including Benenden School, Trinity Youth Theatre and Bexhill College.
The final stage is the selection by the NT of one production of each play to be performed at the National in London in a culminating festival this summer.
It all adds up to a huge amount of learning and opportunity for large numbers of young people. 230 participating groups must mean a minimum of 2,300 young people involved (assuming ten in each group) and it is probably many more. And more groups can use the specially written plays – plays written in previous years are anthologised and on sale in the National Theatre Bookshop.