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NT 2024 Connections Festival | Review

The shows I saw last year at the Connections Festival were grounded in realism, so it stands to reason that this year’s offerings would dip their proverbial toes into worlds that are not wholly, entirely and tangibly authentic. Shout by Alexis Zegerman has the Headteacher (Alex Thompson) of a large school (or is it a small school? There isn’t a motley crew of Deputy Heads and Assistant Heads) use the word ‘recess’ – as though this was the House of Commons, or a school in the United States. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with setting a show in either environment, but the show is set in Stockton-on-Tees. And apparently, pupils leaving sixth form in Stockton-on-Tees have a graduation ceremony, complete with gowns and mortarboards.

Stockton Riverside College from Stockton performing Shout by Alexis Zegerman at NT 2024 Connections Festival (c) Jimmy Lee Photography
Stockton Riverside College from Stockton performing Shout by Alexis Zegerman at NT 2024 Connections Festival (c) Jimmy Lee Photography

Of course, they don’t, but in this ‘world’, they do, and the play follows a somewhat predictable narrative arc. The central character, Dana Alford (Lola Faith) has selective mutism, and it isn’t clear what exactly caused it, and she won’t even tell her stoically faithful friend Viv (Adam Levick). But Dana both literally and metaphorically finds her voice, overcoming the stereotypically obnoxious school bullies with unpleasant but ultimately unoriginal putdowns and name-calling. She sets to work, as the whole of Year 13 does, one way or another, to write her ‘personal statement’. Hers turns out to be a highly inspirational one, but – inauthenticity creeping in again – very little of it has much to say about why she wants to enrol on what university course she is applying for.

The production then dares to push further into the realms of fantasy, and as the overall effect is joyous and entertaining, if slightly bizarre, at least it works: pupil after pupil stands on their chair (which, ordinarily, might well be cause for a teacher to issue a detention) and confesses miscellaneous imperfections and bad habits. I suppose it’s a cathartic release of sorts. The inclusion of Talking Heads tunes and lyrics are a hark back to a generation ago, while the use of mobile telephony and instant messaging keeps the focus very much on the present day.

While the school environment created by the show is significantly less abhorrent than many people’s actual state secondary school experience, I’m not sure the message about celebrating and embracing differences comes across as strongly as it could have done. Dana is only cheered on by her year group at large once she sheds her selective mutism. Able to converse like all the rest, she has become like all the rest: they might as well have replicated the infamous scene in the 1932 horror film Freaks, chanting, “We accept her, one of us! We accept her, one of us!” Still, it’s a sizeable cast (I counted thirty-eight people, including one who had the privilege of playing the part of ‘Word Document’) and the show blasts to smithereens the idea that the younger generation are uniformly mannerless and self-absorbed.

The other show I saw was Kiss / Marry / Push Off Cliff, in which a group of friends who have completed their A-levels decide to go camping together. But Marco (Annabelle Francis-Baker) has allegedly said things that the rest of them find abhorrent, so they all want them out. No alternative arrangements have been made – Marco is simply compelled to go away. Ricky (Rufus Park) even likens it to an ex-communication from the Church, bluntly telling Marco: “Never contact us again.”

The religious comparisons end there – some would say thankfully – but it is a point of frustration for Marco, with justification, that they never find out precisely what was said, or not said, or done, or not done, or said or done (or not) inappropriately that provoked such a strong and unified reaction. An elongated digital video of what I thought was a butterfly but was actually, according to the programme, a ‘giant moth’, didn’t add very much to the narrative, which almost seems a pity, given the efforts made to come up with the animation. Best of all, for me, was Franky the Dog (Louis Howley), a convincing example of anthropomorphism combined with a remarkably dog-like bark.

That the campsite is within reasonable distance of Beachy Head is telling, given that the cliffs, beautiful as they are, are known for people jumping off them to their deaths. The play makes some effort to dispel the image of anyone at all going there for that purpose and nothing else, even if the show ends abruptly with a literal cliffhanger. There are the usual trivial concerns of teenagers, such as who is kissing whom, but there are also references to the futures they must try to live out once they return from camping. Some will enter the workforce, if they haven’t done so already, and others will go on to university courses in different places. As Ricky points out, “Are any of us actually going to keep in touch from September?” It’s a question some of the pupils taking part in Connections Festival 2024 may well be asking themselves.

There was much food for thought in these intriguing short plays, and it was also encouraging to note that there are even student directors and student technicians participating, as the festival provides a comprehensive springboard to young people who are looking to pursue a career in the arts.

Review by Chris Omaweng

Now in its twenty-ninth year, the Connections Festival is an annual nationwide youth theatre festival that champions the talent of young people aged 13-19 from across the UK. Over 7,500 young people from 250 companies from Plymouth to Pitlochry have taken part this year, performing ten specially commissioned plays at one of 33 leading partner theatres this Spring.

Developed in consultation with young people, the festival showcases new plays performed by youth groups nationwide, exploring a range of themes including neurodiversity, cancel culture and mental health.

NT 2024 CONNECTIONS FESTIVAL
Ten Plays for Young Performers
National Theatre
25 to 29 June 2024

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