Derby Theatre Learning encourage practical application in the theatre arts and where better as a young person to learn than in a professional theatre. Each year two new performances are shown by the Derby Theatre youth theatre groups – one made up of the younger members and another by the older members. In a sense it is aspirant learning; both groups gaining valuable skills on stage that also lead to greater confidence in life and the younger group – in watching the older group's show – aspire and are inspired to improve. Not only are acting skills developed but also those of a directorial and technical side for those interested.
This year we have Dust by Sarah Daniels directed by Emma Waslin. The story of Dust concerns a school trip to the Globe Theatre in London which turns surreal when Flavia and her classmates are evacuated from the Underground. Flavia somehow gets lost from the group and ends up with a Tube train driver who drops her off at an unused station to make her own way to the surface. There is a large explosion and things take a funny turn as Flavia gets transported back in time to Roman times.
In her own 21st Century world Flavia (played beautifully by Holly Pridmore) is the victim of bullies at school and wants desperately to be part of their clique. In the Roman world she meets remarkably similar people but has the chance to learn how to deal with the world by defending herself and seeing the world in a different light. She has to gain courage even in the face of a wild lion. In her Roman journey she meets Queen Boudica, Centurions and Gladiators all played with gusto by the cast of twenty-four young actors.
Both shows are set in a semi-circle arena space with structural adaptations to suit each show. Each show also explores the lives of young people and their struggle to find their own voice.
Dust opens in the Underground with all the cast awaiting the next tube train. Throughout the piece good use is made of the casts group mime skills and non more so than in the full cast's amusing and frustrated reactions of tube trains shooting invisibly by. The sound effects ring true with added Underground station authenticity from a live saxophone player. When we reach the transformation to the Roman times there is a good atmosphere of period with the clothes and movement but I'm not overly sure about the modern language used by Boudica and The Romans. In saying so I do like the inclusion of short monologues historically referencing women who have changed the world.
There are some nice stand out performances including Tabitha Gresty as the aged Soothsayer and especially strong (as you'd expect and Amazon to be) was the portrayal of the Amazon Warrior by Jessica Kneale. Very gutsy and solid work. Reid Oliphant is really amusing as a cocky gladiator and both he and Kneale bring the production alive in their slow motion gladiatorial scene.
The most important thing in this production apart from dramatically and the entertainment value is what the young people are getting out of the experience. Just to quote a few; “It means a lot to me. I get the chance to grow and meet lots of new friends”, “building my confidence as an actor...”, “meeting friends with shared interests and doing what we enjoy best – acting”, “how to be more confident on stage and about the backbone of a theatre production”, “ that I get to meet new people and that I have had an opportunity to try and assist in directing”. If I was one of these kids parents I would be immensely proud.
The second production of the evening is from the older youth theatre students and the commitment shown in Dreamtime by Stacey Sampson and directed by Emma Waslin is very professional. The older group workshopped and improvised a number of potential scenes with characters they had created and worked with Stacey Sampson on the structure of the whole piece. After weeks of this collective script work the ideas were used and the script of Dreamtime evolved into a piece of theatre that had all of the older cast's names and ideas stamped on it as well as the professional writer. It shows in the quality of the work and the mature commitment to it.
Dreamtime draws upon a group of teenagers that gather together in an underground car park to share experiences and work our their emotional feelings in order to find common comfort and consolation. This is done in a very stylised way with great influence from Aboriginal culture and dance. The cast are all costumed in white with splashes of a darker hue on their costumes. The story of Danny, a young man leaving the group of friends to go to University and the support and criticism he receives in his decision is well portrayed. The warrior theme is picked up again but this time it is has a mix of admiration blurred with the realisation of idiocy as the cast watch YouTube footage of boy racers creating havoc in Derby city centre.
Dreamtime is great evidence of how exciting theatre collaboration can be and how this talented cast of twenty work tremendously well in the group pieces. This includes the vibrant Aboriginal style dance and, in the acting, creating a tangible atmosphere and adapting their body language and speech to accentuate mood. As in Dust the individual short monologues are especially well done utilising some very complex vocabulary in ways that are immediately comprehensible. There is a strong sense of family in Dreamtime and in the text an authentic notion of the young people trying to discover who they are. Brilliantly and professionally done.
Dust and Dreamtime run at Derby Theatre until Saturday 4th April.
Photo credit: Robert Day