Thrills for audience and players alike

Kevin Berry

Kevin Berry reports on the Harrogate junior drama festival. Wonderful! Two nights at Harrogate's lovely old theatre with the prospect of watching drama from a dozen school and youth groups in North Yorkshire.

Harrogate's junior drama festival is always starred in my diary. The standards are high and there are always surprises, but nothing quite prepared me for the pleasure of two of the offerings.

On the second night, devoted to senior groups, I saw two outstanding plays, both the work of first writers.

Audrey Howson wrote The Experiment for the Ripon Junior Rowels in two weeks. It is a playground drama showing what happens when a headmaster suddenly decides to tell his school that blue eyed children are the most intelligent.

Relationships crumbled and antagonism broke out, first in small groups and then involving a large mass of children. It was a riveting performance and the youngsters made a fine ensemble unit.

Immediately after the interval we were treated to OTMA and Alexei, a short play written by 17-year-old Tamsyn le Marie about the last days in the lives of the Czar of Russia's children. Tamsyn played the Grand Duchess Olga and friends from Thirsk and Sowerby Juniors played the other children. They are not a school group but an ad hoc youth group attached to a flourishing amateur society.

OTMA and Alexei was a stunning presentation, acted with simplicity and conviction and avoiding any cliches. The writer skilfully evoked the royal children's isolation and hopelessness.

The work from most other groups left lasting good impressions but I did wonder why, on what can be a tense occasion, experienced teachers inflict poorly chosen material on their pupils.

Was it appropriate to give the girls from Queen Ethelburga's College some scenes from Goldini's The Servant of Two Masters and make them use embarrassing slap-stick situations? I also wondered about the decision to have the girls from Harrogate Ladies College chanting lines from Jabberwocky through full face masks. The actors from each school did very well under the circumstances.

No such complaints about the first evening. The sheer brio of the occasion was best illustrated by tiny children from Chatterbox Plus, an after-school drama club, running on to the stage for the first time in their lives. They were dressed as ragamuffins and they sang songs from Oliver and Mary Poppins and managed, somehow, not to look too cute.

Some slightly older children from Belmont Birklands School presented Calamity Kate, from the book by Terry Deary. It's a tale of the early talkies at the "Warmer Sisters Studio" in Hollywood. It was wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and acted by children thoroughly enjoying playing grown-ups in a style reminiscent of Bugsy Malone.

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