Competition for a place at the National Student Drama Festival, held annually in Scarborough, is fierce. The productions selected (17 this year from 102 entries) face an audience consisting of fellow entrants, other students, teachers, theatre professionals and members of the public who have the opportunity to criticise them in the daily discussions and the daily Festival paper, Noises Off.
Six schools entered this year and one was selected, Birchwood High School from Bishops Stortford. Their musical, Jamie, has nearly 70 in its cast and band. It follows the adventures of its eponymous hero (played by Steven Mackenzie) as he faces many of the problems common to 16-year-olds. He journeys through life looking for meanings, confronting school bullies, fighting with his mother and sister, running away, meeting homeless kids, taking drugs. He wins millions in a lottery, gives it all away, and finally finds some kind of fulfilment with a girl and the knowledge that everyone is special.
Jeanne Kelly, the writer of Jamie and head of drama at Birchwood, said the story was of a teenage boy trying to sort out what he wants to do with his life. Critics of the piece claimed that it was actually about other issues, and that it had dealt inadequately with them. Attention focused on the difference between the two halves: the first had Jamie on home ground. In the second he was in the city meeting streetkids and taking drugs to prove himself capable of being their leader.
Tim Fountain, its selector, said that the play was not issue-based but about believing in yourself, rather than looking for answers to society's problems. Jeanne Kelly felt it was not meant to be realistic but pantomime in style.
Nevertheless, Jamie engaged with the audience and had a spirit of exhilaration. There were many moments of delightful characterisation, notably Amy Wood as Jamie's sister Fleur, and some good backing from the supporting cast particularly Megan Hockly as a gang member, whose total commitment was a lesson in concentration.
It's main faults were occasional cliches, using less focused extras as chorus, the band's difficulties in finding the right level for the singers and basic choreography. The question of whether or not it should be judged on a similar standard as that applied to the other groups was raised at the discussion.
This is a perennial problem for school productions at the Festival. The Birchwood students fervently refused to be patronised and were eager to defend their production. Jeanne Kelly felt that the whole experience has been positive and had given her students an insight into the world of theatre.
Having finished their two shows on the Friday, the students were free to attend other shows, with workshops given by the likes of Simon Russell-Beale and Glen Walford. These benefits were also there to be enjoyed by all the other school groups that had come to the Festival.
National Student Drama Festival, Scarborough, March 27-April 3. Tel: 01782 749049, or contact Clive Wolfe on 0171 883 4586 after April 14