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Mark Shenton: Watching ‘my’ students graduate to the West End stage

Gabriella Williams (centre) in Carrie: The Musical at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton Gabriella Williams (centre) in Carrie: The Musical at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Today I’m going to a graduation ceremony at Arts Educational Schools London for the musical theatre three-year course. Full disclosure: this is a course I teach on – I do the first-year contextual studies classes in the students’ first term, which (as I put it) lets them know there were musicals before Wicked and The Book of Mormon. (Actually, most of them do, but it’s all about providing a historical context to some of the great shows that they are preparing to join the profession to play in, as well as the new musicals they will be part of that will, hopefully, join my future lists).

The graduation ceremony marks a formal ending to their training and is a scene that is repeated at schools and universities throughout the land: they’ve now officially qualified. But the truly inspiring thing for me is to see so many of them already entering the profession, which is their true graduation (and the whole point of it all). They’re mostly in the chorus which is the real ‘on the job’ training ground for musical performers. But one or two of them are in principal roles already, and some are on to their second jobs already.

Take Gabriella Williams, one of four ArtsEd third years who even before they had formally left the school were already in Carrie at Southwark Playhouse. Williams – who was a knockout in the ArtsEd production of Wonderful Town, in which she played the ‘glamour’ sister Eileen – played the featured role of the ‘baddie’ Chris, who bullies Carrie, and she went straight from that to take over in the lead role of Sophie in the West End’s Mamma Mia!

You knew straight away that a star was being born

The recent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre saw Sam O’Rourke playing the role of the youngest brother, Gideon (along with three more of this year’s ArtsEd graduates), and he’s now in rehearsal for The Smallest Show on Earth, opening at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre this month. Again, he was just sensational in the ArtsEd student production of Crazy for You – you knew straight away that a star was being born.

It was also amazing to see Omari Douglas virtually stealing the show in the dance number that opened Act II of High Society at the Old Vic recently, and this week I’ll be seeing him in the new tour of Hairspray that kicks off in Leicester.

I’ve also recently seen Leah West in Grand Hotel, playing one of the hotel staff at Southwark Playhouse, Nathan Elwick tapping up a storm in the chorus of the currently touring The Glenn Miller Story, Stephanie Rojas in the current tour of Love Me Tender, and Mairi Barclay in Chichester’s A Damsel in Distress.

I’ve also got multiple reasons to revisit Les Miserables in the West End now (David Burnip, Edd Campbell Bird and Paul Wilkins are all in it). Last week, I saw Future Conditional at the Old Vic. This is a new play about the British education system and the importance of good teachers in making it all happen; I’m proud to be part of the exceptionally good group of teachers that make up the faculty at ArtsEd.

I’m looking forward to the new term starting next week. Already two friends, Dean-John Wilson and Chris Bartlett, have told me that their little sister and brother, respectively, are among those I’ll be teaching. I can’t wait to get started.

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