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The real kids from Fame

Last updated 11 May 2008, created 07 December 2001, viewed 8,466

It started life in a tent pitched outside a junior school. Twenty-five years on, the National Youth Music Theatre is an Edinburgh fixture, performs at Glyndebourne and on Broadway and produces Hollywood stars such as Jude Law and Johnny Lee Miller. Maybe it really will live forever, reports Heather More…Neill.

Where might you have seen Jude Law in the guise of a hormone? Or Johnny Lee Miller as a germ? Where did Jamie Bell, Bafta-winning star of Billy Elliot, learn to act? Or David Oyelowo cut his professional teeth before tackling Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company? The answer: they were all once stalwarts of the National Youth Music Theatre, singing, dancing and acting their socks off (if germs wear socks) in high-quality shows in which no cast member is over the age of 21.

These are not the only professionals to have come out of the ranks of the NYMT, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but, as artistic director Jeremy James Taylor is quick to tell you, star-spotting is not the company's main aim. The NYMT exists to produce polished work, to give young people the opportunity to reach virtually professional standards and to learn from each other. "Even in the early days, a tuba player from Eton had as much to learn as a kid from Plaistow," says Mr Taylor.

Despite the grey in his shock of curls, Mr Taylor has hardly aged in 25 years: he still has the air of an enthusiastic magician not given to taking no for an answer. Of one of the NYMT's most recent works, Creation, Mr Taylor says: "We were worried when we started it - we were creating the world, after all. The Lion King had just opened and there was no way we could compete in design terms, so we decided to do away with props and to rely on imagination: if a character stamps your hand with an elephant sign, you're an elephant."

So the world was created in a show made up of myths from many cultures, with music by Richard Taylor, and involving 155 singers, dancers and musicians. The casual mention of the Disney flagship show in conversation is an indication of how high the NYMT's standards are.

Creation filled St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral with appreciative audiences during this summer's Edinburgh Festival. The venue was especially fitting because exactly 25 years had passed since the NYMT (although it had yet to acquire that name) performed in a tent in the cathedral's grounds on its first Edinburgh excursion. The Ballad of Salomon Pavey had been written for north London's Belmont junior school in 1976. The excitement of the production, a dramatic account of the lives (and sometimes deaths) of the children in a 16th-century boys' acting company, seemed too good to relinquish after a few performances, so Jeremy James Taylor suggested taking the production to Edinburgh. Belmont head Peter Foster was, luckily, also an enthusiast. "He said, 'You're mad. Can I come?'" And that was the real beginning of the company.

Always nurturing an entrepreneurial streak alongside his more creative qualities, Mr Taylor had invited everyone he could think of to the Salomon Pavey tent when it was still pitched on the Belmont lawn. Among the guests was Sir Jeffrey Stirling, then chairman of the board of the Young Vic, the innovative, youth-minded London theatre where Mr Taylor worked as an actor and fledgling director. The following year, 1977, The Ballad of Salomon Pavey, having won a Fringe first at Edinburgh and now involving six schools, was performed as part of the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations (Sir Jeffrey was on the organising committee). A television appearance and publication followed and the piece is still being performed.

And at least one actor from the original company, Jasper Britton, who played the first Salomon when he was 12, is still performing. He was the lead in the National Theatre musical Quack, based on Hans Christian Andersen's Ugly Duckling, and played Macbeth in last summer's controversial production at Shakespeare's Globe.

The statistics are remarkable. Over its quarter-century, the NYMT has presented 60 shows at the Edinburgh Festival (in 1984 as part of the International Festival, but usually filling major Fringe venues). There have been two visits to the National Theatre, performances at Glyndebourne and the Globe, six seasons at Sadler's Wells, several West End appearances, a season on Broadway and eight foreign tours. The Dreaming, a highly imaginative Edwardian reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Howard Goodall and Charles Hart, which opens for a season at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio on December 17, is the 29th new music theatre work commissioned by the company.

The NYMT has tackled a variety of musical and production styles. After the tear-jerking Salomon Pavey, the next two Edinburgh visits (in 1978 and 1979) featured light-hearted musical comedies. The first, loosely based on Homer, was Helen Come Home or Achilles the Heel and the second a sort of prototype Bugsy Malone (which the company also did some years later) about gangsters in rakish hats carrying a suspiciously high number of violin cases.

In October 1979 the company was invited to take part in a "best of the Fringe" season at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London's West End, performing two days a week. The cast having dispersed to schools all over Britain, Mr Taylor said, well, no, they couldn't do that but they could come for a whole week. The autumn half-term was booked immediately but, amazingly, the company still had no name. The Children's Music Theatre was invented and registered as an educational charity. The name was changed to the present one only in 1985, following complaints that one of its shows, Captain Stirrick, was unsuitable for child audiences.

The show had, in fact, first been performed in 1980, when Hilary Finch, writing in The TES, said it "revealed a standard of music theatre aspired to but never yet reached by the commercialised pap of the Oliver! and sub-Oliver! variety". That production won a Fringe First at Edinburgh and played for a season at the Young Vic. But five years later Mr Taylor had to admit that indignant parents had a point. He had discovered the story of 13-year-old Captain Stirrick, leader of a 19th-century gang of thieves, while researching for a Young Vic production of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair. It dealt, he says, with "a psychopathic juvenile murderer who suffered from schizophrenia and finally went mad in prison". To avoid any further misunderstanding, the company became the National Youth Music Theatre.

So what does an NYMT member experience in 2001? Gloria Onitiri plays Sylvia, the Titania-figure in The Dreaming. At 17 and in her second year with the company, she has already performed in Exeter, Edinburgh, London and Tokyo. The Arthurian show Pendragon (in which Gloria played Morgan La Fay) went to Japan last year, where 16 young Japanese people joined the cast and came to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford as part of Japan 2001. "It's made an incredible difference," says Gloria. "My voice has matured a lot. I'm more aware of myself and the limits I can push myself to. I have more confidence and I know how difficult it will be to make it professionally because we live like a theatre company. I've also made so many friends, not just my own age."

She is planning to read English and drama at university when she leaves Dame Alice Harper school in Bedford. But, meanwhile, she is to play Oberon in her school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Company members need dedication and energy in abundance. Jordan Metcalfe, who plays Jack (a combination of Puck and the Changeling Boy) is still only 15, but is used to travelling to London from his Yorkshire home. Although the NYMT has some bursary money available, members usually pay for their own travel and accommodation.

Jordan has learned how to raise funds from local businesses, and his school has helped. He was performing in Exeter for three weeks in the summer, the first time he had been away from home for more than a week. "The atmosphere is fantastic," he says, "almost like a big family. You know that if you go wrong, everyone will be behind you. The directors are excellent - they don't teach you to act, but they help you develop skills." But GCSEs are looming, and provide a bit of a contrast to the "fantasy world" he enjoys with the NYMT.

Looking after 100 or more young people on tour, some needing chaperones, requires military precision, but not, it seems, military discipline. Mr Taylor says: "We've never had any drug problems - I'm not saying that nothing has ever gone on, but the discipline of the work tends to rub off."

And with everything having to be completed in school holidays and the odd weekend, hours are long enough to ensure that everyone is pretty well worn out at the end of each day. But this does not mean members are mollycoddled. Jordan points out that everybody is expected to do their own washing and ironing.

Gloria and Jordan went through fairly conventional auditions, although they seem to have found them encouraging rather than frightening. But now there is a new system, called "talentspotting". Young people interested in performing, stage-management or playing in the orchestra attend a workshop designed to be instructive and fun in its own right, whether hopefuls are chosen or not. The next round will take place during every weekend in January at locations all over the UK. Gloria, who is a consummate singer but has had to learn about movement, says: "They ease you in gradually."

And then there is the Genesis project, due to start in 2002. Longer workshops will bring another group of young people together with leading directors to develop new work in many parts of the UK. The 120-strong NYMT is, says Mr Taylor, "not able to involve enough people. That's the reason for the new project. There is amazing raw talent out there. Some just don't know how good they are."

Funding for such an enterprise as the NYMT is never going to be straightforward. Having Prince Edward as president helps, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has been generous, although he had to withdraw abruptly last year. Jeremy James Taylor describes the company as "broke" but, by some miracle, with careful budgeting and optimism that a sponsor will be found, work has always so far been able to go on as planned.

Jude Law, by the way, star of The Talented Mr Ripley, in 1989 played a hormone in Richard Stilgoe's musical, Bodywork, about life inside the human body as run by bovver boys. Glamorous Mr Law was Adrenaline. He played several other roles between 1987 and 1991 and says now: "The NYMT was my training. It encouraged dedication, fun and friendship. I will never forget my time with them."

For information about auditions: for The Dreaming (Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio, London) December 17 to 29: 020 7304 4000

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