National Theatre (Olivier / Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 29 June, 2011

The Connections programme is, along with the National Student Drama Festival, the country’s most exciting showcase of young theatrical work. The NT commissions a number of one-act plays and makes these freely available for school/college/youth groups to stage. The cream of the crop are then invited to give one-off performances at the National. This year’s ten plays include a drama about a war-torn village’s missing children by Samuel Adamson; an examination of the legacy of the Rwandan genocide by Katori Hall; a fable about body-fascism and youth cosmetic surgery by Nell Leyshon; and an absurdist version of the Gargantua story by Carl Grose.
Last Wednesday’s opening double bill consisted of James Graham’s meditation on citizenship Bassett and Douglas Maxwell’s sentimental comedy about growing up, Too Fast. Apparently the East Midlands- and North West-based CAST Ensemble Youth Theatre more usually engage in devised verbatim or physical work; this may partly explain the young cast’s impressive ownership of the lines written by Graham. The pupils of a citizenship class in Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire are locked in their classroom during one of the repatriation events involving the military war dead for which the village has become renowned. Leo is determined to pay his respects to his deceased friend, but also to ensure that his are the only views on citizenship, nationality and patriotism to prevail as his classmates’ conversations touch on a raft of topics. Tom Murton gave a remarkable performance as Leo, blending intense and confused emotion with real physical menace. Chloe Harris was foremost amongst his interlocutors, but scarcely a single performance amongst the cast of 16 was less than excellently pitched. Graham’s final confrontation is too forced, but this is a typically thoughtful, socially engaged play from him.
Scarborough Youth Theatre deployed nearly two dozen performers as funeral mourners, a wannabe singing group, flowers and characters from BBC-TV’s infants’ series In The Night Garden in Douglas Maxwell’s piece, which is by turns sharp and surreal. It was an ambitious staging, but the company’s reach exceeded its grasp, in particular in the decision to cast the clutch of central characters, the ambitious group Sensation Nation, from performers several years younger than their characters, affecting not just plausibility but their onstage assurance. Nevertheless, Connections remains a programme about which one is never tempted to use the condescending caveat “very good, considering…”.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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