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The National Youth Music Theatre continues to set the standards to which other groups aspire. One of the two shows going to Broadway this autumn is the sharp, sophisticated version of the BrechtWeill Threepenny Opera (George Square Theatre) a combination of cutting satire and, even more important these days than its political message, captivating score. A 1970s translation sets the scene in Soho, but otherwise this production is rooted firmly in the 1920s with bold Otto Dix inspired sets and costumes.
While The Threepenny Opera gives the NYMT's older cast a helping hand up the professional ladder the company's other production, Annie, involves the younger performers. Annie, 11-year-old Sarah-Louise Earnshaw is a real find and the chorus is outstanding. Best of all are the big smiles on the faces of the cast.
The girls of Queen's College, Harley Street, make their first (Fringe) appearance with The Beggars' Opera (St Martin of Tours). It is to be hoped that the coverage this school has received in the popular press prior to the Festival has helped publicise the show, an excellent whole school effort in a very difficult play. With no professional help the all-female cast work well as a team and after a slow start the show builds up to an exciting climax (devised by teacher-director Shankara Angadi). Adults take the main roles of Macheath, Peachum and his wife, but there are strong individual performances from the girls in the gritty roles of Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit.
National Student Theatre Company (Assembly Rooms). Devotees of Angela Draill will know just what to expect from The Big Book for Girls, a hugely enjoyable skit on 1930s girls' school stories. We follow the adventures of Brenda ("the best girl in the school") and her chums via feasts in the form, Latin in the lavs and crushes on the cricket pitch, not taking too seriously the prejudices, xenophobia and bullying, until the show's final moments when, as the spotlight falls on Austrian-Jewish outcast Gerda, we are brought up sharply with a reminder of the impending outbreak of World War Two. The show is slick, its humour enhanced by its music - spoof school songs, patter and operatic parody all performed unaccompanied.
There is no happy ending either for Harrow Youth Theatre's Bus (Pleasance). The show, written by the group's director Tim Norton, centres on the general strike of 1925. Working-class Laura forgets her humble origins when she joins the sophisticates of Oxford - with disastrous consequences. The music, played by an off-stage jazz ensemble, is lively with lots of charleston-inspired routines. Bus is imaginatively staged and choreographed with a good atmosphere, although wanders a little at the beginning.
Hull's Northern Theatre Company has an active youth group who feature prominently in Pacific Overtures (Adams Theatre). The intimate venue makes it easier for the audience to follow the subtleties of the libretto and Sondheim's adventurous score which draws on Japanese as well as western influences. There are some intense performances and I am sure I wasn't alone in leaving the theatre with a new understanding of the piece.
At the Central Hall Tollcross, the British Festival of Youth Orchestras offers a wide range of music. The repertoire can be adventurous, although the groups I heard, Southampton University and Dundee Schools Orchestra, played fairly safe and drew large audiences.