On the Fringe of young dreams

Brian Hayward watches youthful dramatic artists parade their swelling talents

Draw up a league table of Fringe Festival fans and the mobbed-out citizens of Edinburgh will be in the relegation zone while at the top will be the young people who come every year with their teachers and drama leaders to have the adrenalin-fuelled time of their lives and are prepared to catch up on their sleep when they get home.

Where else would you see the cast of a musical being calmed down before a performance? No pep talks in the dressing room are necessary for the excellent National Youth Music Theatre. Instead they have 20 minutes in the park in George Square to re-focus their minds and bodies before they are back on stage with The Dreaming, giving another of this flagship company's trademark performances where individual brilliance is melded into immaculate ensemble playing in hardly more than three weeks of rehearsal.

Andrew Lloyd Webber calls it "the best youth music theatre in the world" and the company certainly helps to define the art form by pointing up the advantages the actors hold over their elders. The NYMT scouts can comb the whole of Britain for exactly the players they need. They are not limited, as a professional company is, to those who have made theatre their career. Youth is an advantage in itself; the young are generally more appealing and their vitality and enthusiasm is genuine rather than practised.

The directors capitalise on these gifts with dazzling stagecraft to match the quality of the songs from Charles Hart and Howard Goodall, commissioned by the NYMT to create this update of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in Edwardian England. The cast are "the long and the short and the tall" before they went away to war, the elfin woodlanders and the lanky gentry, busy with their own lives but joining together memorably for moving choral finales.

Another welcome regular to the Fringe is the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, whose Masters course (acting) students pair up with the technical course students of the Welsh College of Music and Drama to launch their professional careers together.

To their great credit, if not to their career advantage, they rejected the idea of a showcase for the theatrical agents in favour of a genuine piece of stage teamwork. Led by Matthew Lenton, they devised a dramatisation of the true story of the American whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was attacked and wrecked by an enraged sperm whale, the incident that partly inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. It is a bleak story, for the whalers survive the attack only to face starvation, cannibalism and death. "All that's left is bones" is the sombre line that sets the audience adrift for the rest of the evening.

The women left alone in the tiny Quaker community have to learn to live without men and to live like men, which significantly means discovering whisky and the use of dildos to ameliorate the loneliness of widowhood.

For the audience, most of the cheer stems from the ingenious staging. Boxes, chairs and desks of a classroom grow into the whaler, an easel becoming the mast and then the prow surging through the swell of the sea of the women's umbrellas. Cleverly, the seagulls become letters from the parted sailors, marking another fluent abridgement in the pacey story-telling which was marred only by the deliberate lapse into real time drama in the crucial episode when the whalers draw lots to decide who is to be shot for food and who is to pull the trigger.

Nevertheless, it was "Extraordinary for only four weeks preparation", as I overheard someone say on the way out.

Something else extraordinary is that the Edinburgh Studio Opera waited until this year to make its debut on the Fringe and then got its programme entry wrong. More happily, it had Richard Demarco to thank for suggesting the first half of its double bill should be The Telephone, for the excellent reason that its composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, is an Edinburgh resident. Rosie Bell and Andy Pugsley gave winning performances in this comedy of the triumph of true love over the handset.

The company then followed with an "improved" version of their earlier production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, updated to the heyday of Hollywood.

The venue, Rocket @ St John's Hall, was too small for the talents of this company, with no room for the voices to resonate to full effect, and so intimate with the audience that it demanded a close-up, television style of acting, quite out of sorts with the medium of opera. That said, the company deserved all the warm applause and curtain call.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you