Rhinegold Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Bolingbroke Academy Theatre Company perform Tom Well's 'Stuff' at the NT Connections Festival 2019

Eleanor Philpot

 Review: NT Connections Festival 2019 – ‘Class’ and ‘Stuff’

8:18, 2nd July 2019

This year’s roundup of new plays saw young people exploring complex issues through the power of drama.

NT Connections is always a welcome event in any drama teacher’s calendar. As well as giving youth groups up and down the country the opportunity to perform, it allows KS4 and KS5 students to enjoy top quality productions that explore themes and issues relating to their own lives beyond the classroom.

The two plays on offer for the Wednesday (26 June) agenda showed teens struggling to find their place in the world while adjusting to the constant trials of impending adulthood. While both writers based their stories in real-life settings, where conversations could explore the day to day reality of teenage life, the way in which they broached their individual topics could not be more different.

Class, the first play of the evening, penned by writing partners Ben Bailey Smith and Lajaune Lincoln, was set in a classroom during lunch break, where the student council had gathered to elect their new president. The play tackled socio-political issues head on, reflecting upon the corruption inherent in any political system. Candidate Oli was shown to be using his potential position as president to impress his teacher and get better A-Levels, while another classmate spread gossip to sabotage both Chloe’s and Oli’s campaigns. In demonstrating the selfish agendas and manipulation that takes place in the political world, the play encouraged teenagers nearing voting age – who may never have shown an inherent interest in politics before – to start thinking critically, which is of tantamount importance.

Regarding other socio-political issues, the play made some interesting points about the class system itself, using characters with different social standings in school to reflect upon how class affects us in the wider world. Throughout the play, upper class IT-girl Chloe is forced to hide her relationship with working class outsider Jason, so she isn’t judged by her class-conscious parents, while her sister uses her wealth and social influences to manipulate the school system to her own means. These issues were confronted head-on towards the end of the play, when Jason gives an impassioned speech about need for social reform, prompting the other students to rip up their ballots in political protest. In doing so, the characters broke out from their parents’ expectations (and on a larger scale, society’s too), and demonstrated the impact that young people can have on the future of politics.

While the play made some valid political points relating to class, it sometimes came across as a vehicle for the writers’ own views. Although there was an opposing point of view demonstrated in Chloe’s sister – who saw no problem with the bias system – her voice was never allowed to be heard, and subsequently the play became a little didactic. In allowing the opposing point of view to be heard, the production could have engaged in some riveting political debate, educating teenagers on the myriad opinions that make up the political spectrum, so they could have a comprehensive understanding of both sides before they make their mark on the ballot paper.

When it came to the performances themselves, there was some raw talent on show among the young actors of Easy Street Theatre Company.

Harry Foster-Mager was on form as rude boy Flash, encouraging large gaggles of laughter from the back with every quip, and Joe McCartney garnered pathos for Oli’s doomed fate as a political martyr, but the real stand-out was Annie Allen whose stage presence was magnetic. Delivering sneery comments with biting sarcasm one moment, and the next pouring her heart into an impassioned speech – her voice cracking with emotion – Allen embodied Chloe’s anger, pain and sadness with unmistakable poise.

Contrastingly, Tom Wells’ Stuff, while not so overtly political, explored the obstacles we face in young adulthood, while emphasising the power of friendship.

Taking place in a rundown village hall, the play followed a group of young friends as they set up a surprise birthday party for their best friend, Anita, who in a similar vein to Beckett’s enigmatic Godot, was wholly absent from the action of the play.

Bolingbroke Academy Theatre Company were excellent; the chemistry was so palpable between all the actors that I honestly believed they had been friends for years. From the sweet natured yet nervous Stace (Betty Smith) to the charming and cheeky AJ (Dexter Greenwood), every actor bought to their role a sense of realism and depth, so much that I felt an overbearing sadness when the play ended and I had to bid these characters goodbye. As a play that relies heavily on dialogue rather than any real action or plot, it would be difficult to hide a weaker actor, but in the case of this cast, everyone delivered. It is important to note that every performer in this production was state-school educated and is reminder of the top-notch talent that can be found in comprehensives. Talent, as they say, cannot be taught or bought.

In addition to the performances by Bolingbroke Academy students, the play itself handled complex issues with a level of sensitivity and thoughtfulness usually found in productions aimed at adults.

A good example of this is found in how the play approached sexuality, refusing to play out stereotypes preassigned to gay men. In a lengthy scene between AJ and Matt, the two explored their relationship with their own sexuality, with AJ telling tales of drunken nights out and STIs, while Matt expressed a desire to wait for the right person. In placing an emphasis on individual experience, the play undermined stereotype, demonstrating the multiple experiences that make up the LGBTQ cannon: how it is not a simple one size fits all narrative.

Via the breaking of the fourth wall, the production also encouraged the audience to sympathise with the characters’ struggles. At the end of the play, bunting was pulled high over the audience’s head and party whistles were handed out, as the audience sang along with Magda’s song and joined the party. In singing along to the lyrics (‘Sometimes sh**t stuff happens…sometimes bad stuff happens’) alongside the cast, the audience’s and the characters’ problems became one, showing young people how issues facing others are never far removed form their own.

Applications are now open to take part in next year’s Connections Festival. The National Theatre is looking for 300 school and youth theatre companies across the UK to take part. For more information and to sign up, please visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/connections

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