Rhinegold Photo credit: Richard H Smith
The modern-setting teenage characters from These Bridges

Cameron Bray

Editor

National Theatre Connections Festival 2018: 28 June

2:41, 29th June 2018

The National Theatre’s Connections is a nationwide youth theatre festival that has been running for twenty years. It commissions ten new plays a year, each one written for young people to perform. This year saw 270 companies from across the UK participate. Of these hundreds of performances, one version of each of the ten plays was selected for the Connections Festival, a five-day-long event held at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre. Two plays happen each evening, with companies travelling down to the South Bank from as far afield as Wakefield, Paisley and Haggerston. I attended the performances on 28 June 2018.


 

The Ceasefire Babies
by Fiona Doyle, performed by Yew Tree Youth Theare, Wakefield

The Troubles are a difficult topic at the best of times, let alone one to be dealt with in a play written for young people. In an hour-long performance, this play managed to adeptly cover many large issues including transgenerational trauma and guilt, the legacy of violence and death, teenage pregnancy and colonialism – it was able to pull all of this off thanks to a brilliant cast. The company played two sets of teenagers, one during what seemed to be Operation Demetrius in 1971 (repeated references to internment), and one in a more contemporary setting with the action shifting between time periods to show if and how any scars had healed.

CREDIT: Richard H Smith
CREDIT: Richard H Smith

Johnny, played by Nathan Crawshaw, quietly broods throughout most of his appearances, making his sudden bursts of anger all the more effective when played against the constant rage of Emily Walton’s Jamie – a demanding role given the intensity of the character but one that Emily performed well. In the lighter moments of the play, Jacob Dore and Lara Earnshaw, as Shay and Lou-Lou respectively, showed great comedic timing and presence – building on their character’s dialogue with apt physicality. Indeed, all the actors seemed to have a real understanding of their role, embodying them and conveying their characters through quirks and mannerisms.


 

These Bridges
by Phoebe Eclair-Powell, performed by Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre say that ‘Inclusivity is at the heart of [their] work’ and mention in the programme that their Connections company includes young people with additional needs. This performance of These Bridges showed a great example of how to integrate young people with additional needs without resorting to tokenism. Adjustments were made to the staging of the play to accommodate its actors’ needs, such as the role of Diamond being undertaken by two performers, one using a wheelchair and the other helping to move the wheelchair around the stage.

CREDIT: Richard H Smith
CREDIT: Richard H Smith

The play depicts a literally divided London, North and South divided when the Thames suddenly burst its banks – the world we are brought into has a flavour of magical realism to it and assumes that the audience will accept the premise and focus on the story that then unfolds. We follow four groups of teenagers, two from each side of the river, who all believe that life is better on the other side. Their individual stories were convincingly portrayed, with the text playing to its actors’ strengths by allowing them to be authentically teenaged.

I did, however, find the script to be a little clunky in places, particularly during expositional dialogue. The very last scene has the actors explain the message of the play to the audience, how it was about friendship and co-operation, when the preceding 40 minutes already showed that effectively. The ensemble – playing London’s undead drowned – were quite chilling, with frantic movements and singing that helped build up the sense of foreboding that loomed over the teenagers’ journeys.

Quite an interesting play to do with young people, given its more postmodern approach to storytelling but done superbly by this company.


 

I greatly enjoyed my evening and the two companies were a testament to the Connections Festival and indeed, Connections as a whole. The playwrights should be praised for their ability to write meaningful and challenging plays for young people, without patronising them or dumbing down the material. What I saw was theatre-making done to a standard that young people deserve.

Any youth theatres or schools interested in taking part in Connections 2019 should hurry over to the National Theatre’s website as the deadline for applications is 9 July 2018 – details can be found here.

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