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Fergus Morgan: At 24, the National Theatre’s youth festival is more important than ever

Haggerston School perform Chinonyerem Odimba's The Sweetness of a Sting as part of the National Theatre's Connections festival. Photo: Richard Davenport/ Haggerston School pupils perform Chinonyerem Odimba's The Sweetness of a Sting as part of the National Theatre's Connections festival. Photo: The Other Richard
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Connections, the National Theatre’s youth festival, is more important than ever. With drama’s importance in the curriculum dwindling, Connections, now in its 24th year, continues to perform a vital role encouraging people in their teens to get involved in making theatre, both on stage and off.

It works to a tried and tested formula. Ten established playwrights – this year’s crop includes Alice Birch, Fiona Doyle, In-Sook Chappell and Brad Birch – are commissioned to write 10 short plays, which are then made available to schools, sixth forms and youth theatre groups nationwide.

Productions are staged at 28 supporting theatres, with 10 companies eventually selected to perform at the NT itself during a week-long June showcase. This year, more than 270 companies took part. That’s 5,200 young people and 13,286 hours of rehearsal.

Exposing thousands of young people to drama, with all the social and educational benefits that involves, is not the only important thing about Connections. It’s exposing them to the vibrancy and variety of contemporary British drama.

It’s putting schoolroom Shakespeare to one side and showing them the irreverent politicism of Chris Bush, the elegiac elegance of Barney Norris and the thrilling formal experimentation of Alice Birch. It’s showing them that theatre isn’t just dead white men, but diverse voices driven by urgent ideas.

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The festival showcase, currently occupying the NT’s Dorfman, is an inspiring reminder of just how powerful that experience can be. On the night I attended, there were performances of Norris’ Want by St Brendan’s Sixth Form College, Bristol, and Chinonyerem Odimba’s The Sweetness of a Sting by Haggerston School. The enthusiastic audience included school groups, supporters and paying punters.

Neither play is great but they both kick around plenty of ideas for the young companies to sink their teeth into.

Norris’ Want is a chain reaction of conversations between teenagers, all on the cusp of leaving school for good. It is scattergun in its focus and sledgehammer-blunt, but structurally playful, and the seven-strong cast does sterling work evoking the angst and ennui of becoming an adult. There’s a particularly great comic turn from Tom Keenan, as the clueless but kind Mark.

St Brendan's Sixth Form College, Bristol, performed Barney Norris' Want as part of NT Connections. Photo: The Other Richard
St Brendan’s Sixth Form College, Bristol, performed Barney Norris’ Want as part of NT Connections. Photo: The Other Richard

Odimba’s The Sweetness of a Sting is bold but bizarre, following Jass Beki’s Badger as he frets about his parents’ newfound ambition to move back to Nigeria, then hallucinates a surreal escapade into an underground world of ants, spiders and ladybirds. Odimba’s aim, I think, is to contemplate adolescent identity through insects, but it doesn’t really come off. That doesn’t stop the large, ensemble cast (a mixture of year 8 and year 9 pupils), though, and it is genuinely touching to see them beam with incredulity come the rapturous curtain call.

That same sense of wonder reappears moments later, when the cast members of Want spy a professional photo of their production hung in the Dorfman and promptly Instagram the hell out of it. They just can’t believe their faces are up there. Who knows, perhaps they will be again a few years down the line?

Applications to be part of Connections 2019 close on July 9. Any school or youth theatre can apply to take part. Go to connections.nationaltheatre.org.uk to find out more

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