18–25 March, 2005

One of the best-kept secrets in British theatre has been going on for the last several days on the Yorkshire coast.  The National Student Drama Festival may not sound very appealing to some, but it offers a jam-packed week’s worth of performances, workshops, discussions and anything else you care to imagine.  This year’s 50th NSDF, “The Tides Of Time”, also boasts a clutch of shows from linked international festivals.

Forget the cliché: “student drama” does not mean pimply gits in leggings posing as trees. That’s never been true.  This year’s NSDF includes plays by Berkoff, Justin Butcher and Deborah Levy plus new writing and devised work.  William Wycherly’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife nestles next to Martin Sherman’s Bent, a reminder that the Holocaust wiped out numerous gay men as well as Jews, gypsies and dissidents.

Even more than at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s perfectly possible to spend the entire week at NSDF without sleep.  Plays are discussed in the mornings; then workshops and masterclasses, the actual performances, late-night events and a Festival magazine, Noises Off (which I used to edit) that’s put together right through the night.  It can sometimes be a mystery where they find the energy to keep it all up.

Workshops and discussions are populated by a number of famous names, many of whom have long histories with NSDF.  This year’s crop has included Willy Russell, Tim Fountain, Richard Wilson and of course Alan Ayckbourn, who runs Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.  Theatres and companies present include the Bush, Frantic Assembly and Graeae. Plus the entire West family – Timothy and Samuel West and Prunella Scales.

The shows chosen to perform at NSDF (this year has ten UK shows from around 80 entries) will always be a bit of a lottery. Some years are good, some not.  2005, to be honest, hasn’t been great. There’s been a lot of lazy work on stage, people thinking that they’re being clever when in fact they’re copping out, and the classic dodge of “it means whatever you want it to”.  But the chances to learn are legion.

Its 50th Festival is an occasion for NSDF to take stock of where it wants to go: should the week be a bigger event, or should it try to focus on specific kinds of work and nurture them?  I think the answer in both cases is no.  It’s the variety, the dizzying range of discoveries you can make here, that brings folk – students and “civilians” alike – back again and again to NSDF. Long may it continue to be so.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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