Starry Alumni, Sharp Satire and Hope For The Future In National Youth Theatre 60th Celebrations

Sixty years young, last night the National Youth Theatre celebrated its storied past, buoyant present and - with a heartfelt plea for more financial support - essential future in a star-studded diamond gala at Shaftesbury Theatre. Those NYT participants who joined the company in this glittering anniversary year really lucked out, noted my companion, but it was hard to find a dull moment in decades of pioneering, diverse and life-changing work, as illustrated by this affectionate revue.

The Youth Theatre was founded in 1956 by Michael Croft, a teacher at Alleyn's Boys' School in Dulwich who wanted to provide opportunities for budding thesps in the school holidays; it's since invited over 100,000 14-25-year-olds into its workshops and productions. Many of those celebrated alumni returned (either in person or via video message) to salute the institution that so generously nurtured them.

Gina McKee confessed she'd auditioned never having seen a play, and recalled the magical release of her first breathing exercise, but most importantly realising "I had choices ahead of me". Daniel Craig reproduced his audition speech and explained how acting became "my life" after his time with the NYT, while Matt Smith made the requisite doctor gag, before giving a powerful encore performance of Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral.

Equally passionate was Timothy Dalton, articulately sharing his moment of youthful revelation: of course Shakespeare's Antony would be completely beguiled by Cleopatra when the great Helen Mirren was in the role - and a majestic reprisal from Mirren, who said the NYT launched her career, proved his point. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, meanwhile, explained that even those who didn't pursue acting professionally gained invaluable confidence from their NYT experience.

In the Sixties, the NYT began adding modern plays to its repertoire, and Barry Rutter - on fine form - proudly remembered playing a character named Nipple in David Halliwell's Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. Matt Lucas recreated his time as a techie on The Tempest by solemnly moving a prop across the room, and Nichola McAuliffe somehow got through an audition with a Catherine of Aragon speech in an incomprehensible Spanish accent, leading to her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Petticoat Rebellion.

There was a political awareness to proceedings, with James Graham providing a wry Tory Party ski trip sketch, complete with grammar schools reference and a painfully astute psychological reading of Michael Gove. Plus there was sharp satire from the always glorious Jessica Hynes as nightmare PR Siobhan Sharpe, on hand to rebrand NYT as the London Adult Show. "The posh, well-spoken people are being squeezed out of the arts," Siobhan professed, advocating for "girls in Islington with long hair".

It was a smart rejoinder to criticism that the NYT, despite its best intentions, can skew middle-class, and had the added bonus of Hugh Bonneville's BBC middle-manager Ian Fletcher introducing Siobhan while handling - or failing to handle - the Bake Off meltdown.

References to great British icons recurred, from the BBC and James Bond to Doctor Who, the Beatles and Shakespeare - appropriately for a company with a strong sense of identity not just as an arts institution, but a British one. In his closing speech, NYT artistic director and chief executive Paul Roseby (also the evening's director) stated: "This is what Britain is." He noted the national and international reach of the company, explaining: "Our home is everywhere, because what we learn from this we take everywhere."

He pointed out that the NYT has Arts Council funding, but absurdly isn't recognised by the Department of Education because you don't get a piece of paper. Instead, "you get life experience", he stressed, indicating the 95% of NYT performers who had never been on a stage before. "We care. We are empathy. And it's time more people cared for it." With that support, he believes "our future is greater than our past".

The key element of this 60-year "revolution", Roseby explained, was the focus on ensemble, and that family spirit pervaded. Current NYT members provided energetic musical interludes carrying us through the decades (highlights including Bowie's "Starman" accompanied by space hoppers and intense dancing in tents) and a variety of work, from Shakespeare to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Peter Terson and Al Smith - all marked by a strong sense of company, as were the past productions projected in an evocative slideshow. Light-up audience wristbands added to a giddy party atmosphere.

Both Roseby and the affectionate alumni conjured a utopian vision of theatre: inclusive, innovative and unafraid. If the NYT still has work to do in some areas, it can claim to be genuinely pioneering in many. Actress Cerrie Burnell, who was born without a right lower arm, was told at drama school she would never work unless she got a prosthetic or wore long cardigans. ("Is Juliet cold on the balcony?" was her pithy response.)

But she found acceptance in the NYT, which - in her experience - sees individual difference as an asset to the company as a whole. That's an uplifting lesson not just for theatre, but for Britain.

The NYT REP West End Season runs 23 September-25 November at the Ambassadors Theatre

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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