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Rob Halliday: After 60 years, let’s celebrate the NYT’s technical stars

Cast of Henry V at the curtain call in 1956 at Toynbee Hall, Cast of Henry V at the curtain call in 1956 at Toynbee Hall
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That the National Youth Theatre has just turned 60 suddenly makes you realise that its first youths can by no means be youths any more. But when you realise your time there was between the company’s 32nd and 35th years, the maths suggests you are by no means a youth any more, either.

Ex-NYT members seem to retain definite characteristics of youthfulness: openness, keenness and enthusiasm. A sensibility that you can and should just figure it out and get on with it is somehow immediately identifiable. Know the signs and you can almost always spot an NYT person.

I applied in 1987, the last year interviews were held in York Way, a street unrecognisable since King’s Cross’ remarkable transformation. I didn’t get in, but I did go and see the shows: those crowds charging through Christ Church Spitalfields under Dave Horn’s strobe lighting were seared into my mind. I definitely wanted to be part of this.

And in 1988, I was. I remember Ed Wilson’s Murder in the Cathedral in Edinburgh, and Russia, with its beautiful, simple design by Brian Lee and Geoffrey Burgon’s haunting music – still one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on. Matthew Warchus’ productions of The Suicide and Coriolanus were remarkable, as was Marat/Sade, starring Daniel Craig. Those were three incredible years.

As much as the shows, I remember the people. The adults included Richard Godfrey, Jerry Hodgson, Fi Imber and the young lampie Paule Constable, as well as Elaine, Gus and Pete at the Bloomsbury Theatre. They ensured nothing bad happened to us while letting us just get on with it. And I still miss the late Kevin Fitz-Simons, who gave me a start.

The NYT is rightly proud of its performers who have gone on to great things. Though it doesn’t mention them as often as it could, it should be equally proud of everyone who went from the company’s backstage world – in my time, the Holloway Road ground-floor Swamp – to the bigger backstage world beyond.

I suspect that NYT’s go-for-it backstage attitude was established early on by one of its early technical leaders, Brian Croft – no relation to founder Michael Croft – who would go on to lead the Rolling Stones around the world and become the godfather of the rock’n’roll production industry. Somehow it has continued through each generation. The names might not be as well known to the public as the actors, but Piers Shepperd (technical director, London 2012), Matt Drury (head of lighting at the National Theatre) and Greg Clarke (Tony award-winning sound designer), to name just a few from my era, show that there is star quality backstage at the NYT.

This unique organisation has a special place in our memories: the freedom, the excitement, the fun; the people, the laughter, the love; the sheer exhilaration of spending the summer just doing shows.

Happy 60th. Here’s to many more. But first, let’s have a backstage party to celebrate.

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