One amazing day

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Many of the young visitors had never been to London before and some combined their special day with a longer visit to the capital Throughout this year, London's Millennium Dome has been hosting a series of performances by young people from across the United Kingdom on the theme of Our Town. All 211 of the UK's local education authorities signed up to bring a group to the Dome for a day. McDonald's Restaurants provided the start-up cash - pound;10,000 in each case - and for each performance, one of the 12 regional managers of the New Millennium Experience Company (responsible for running the Dome) kept an eye on proceedings.

Performers came from as far away as Cornwall and Orkney, which produced a colourful free leaflet to commemorate the event. Many of the young visitors, their travel costs met by McDonald's, had never been to London before and some combined their special day with a longer visit to the capital.

Conwy's performance of Y Fodrwy Aur (The Golden Ring) was the 188th production to take place, and it was, says Beth Winkley, the NMEC education manager for Wales, which sent 22 groups, "a cracker".

Steve Hall, the McDonald's man at the Dome, was there to greet participants. He says the performances represent "a tip of the pyramid" of the work done by the communities.

Long-distance travellers usually arrived the night before their big day and moved into a nearby hostel so that, by 9am, they could be running through the presentation for the first time in the pavilion. Although attractive, the playing space provided challenges - it was wide and not thoroughly insulated against the noise from surrounding crowds and attractions. But everyone was well-prepared, with the help of information from their education manager and - if they had chosen to spend some of their money in this way - the technical expertise of a professional director. The three performances, one in the morning and two in the afternoon, were broadcast live in the Dome proper on vast video screens.

Sixteen-year-old John Thompson, who was in King's Lynn's presentation, says that knowing there was such a potentially huge audience had an amazing effect. "It settles your nerves for future performances in front of people. I'm on a drama course now, and I'm sure it influenced my choice." He says the participants were "treated like gold".

Feeding and looking after everyone helped to account for the pound;3-4 million Our Town Story budget. Most towns broughta young cast, but sometimes older members of the community came too. And just about every relevant MP turned up to congratulate "their" performers and be photographed for the local newspaper.

Greenwich contributed to the sense of occasion: every performance was seen by a borough official, in the case of Conwy, Cyril Young, deputy lieutenant of Greenwich. He could compare performances from all over the country, and said he'd enjoyed every visit, despite sometimes having to make a quick change out of his surgeon's coat and into the snazzy uniform of his office.

Conwy's day was Tuesday, November 14. Bad weather and transport difficulties had made travel from north Wales to London difficult for months, but everyone arrived on time and immediately got into the mood. Preparation had started with a nine-day performance course in the summer holidays with young people over 12 years invited by artistic directors Janys Chambers and Kevin Dyer to bring along a story.

This part of Wales, dominated by a Norman castle, is rich in legends, but it is also a modern tourist area. These two strands emerged from exploration of stories and ideas in dance, music and drama. Soon, 40 young people found themselves telling the sad story of the doomed love of Welsh maiden Gwenllian for a Norman soldier, set against the humorous goings-on of an English family on holiday.

Romance, teenage rebellion, cheeky children, a ghost and a golden ring passed down through the centuries were the ingredients for Y Fodrwy Aur, all packed into 30 minutes and supported by imaginative dance and haunting music played by a small band.

Wales is famous for its music, but the songs sung in Welsh, specially composed by Oliver Wilson-Dickson and his student helpers, were especially apt and beautiful.

Afterwards, Gareth Thomas, Conwy's MP, speaking in Welsh, said he was impressed by the performers. He said Welsh groups had a head start because the performing arts are strong in schools in Wales and many young people take part in eisteddfodau.

Rosalind Brooks, who danced Gwenllian with exquisite grace, said she'd enjoyed herself enormously. Then it was time to explore the Dome. The highlight for many visitors is the aerial show, and it is certainly spectacular, but I can honestly say I was more entranced by the performance of the young people of Conwy.

To see some of the artwork exhibited by Our Town Story participants:

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