Review reprinted from Susan Elkin of The Stage.
I’m at Thameside Theatre at Grays in Thurrock having popped through the tunnel out of my Kent comfort zone into the terra (largely) incognita of Essex. Like North Kent, with which I am totally familiar of course, Thameside Essex has sackloads of socio-economic problems – and many of its young people lack ambition. And the BNP regards Thurrock as one of the organisation’s ‘very best areas’ which is why Nick Griffin used this same stage as a launch pad for the party’s European and local election campaign last year.
The performance I’ve come to see – in a very pleasant, modern red plush, honey coloured wood and warm brick theatre over the library – couldn’t be more different. It’s by 13-17 years olds labelled “isolated, disadvantaged, at risk, unengaged or uninspired.” During the first half they sing songs they’ve written and perform spoken word items interspersed with a handful of short professional hip hop performances.
After the interval we are shown Ten Years From Now (above), a thoughtful and enjoyable devised piece of musical theatre about life in Thurrock which asks whether its young inhabitants should leave or stay as they grow up, given that they have strong ties there – and we’re a very long way from the BNP. It’s a wistful, lyrical, 35-minute work in progress which will eventually run for 55 minutes and be toured to schools and other institutions across Thurrock in July.
All of this is thanks to the work of Theatre Is and its ‘It’s Our Theatre’ project which is already running successfully in Hertfordshire and Norfolk. I’ve blogged about Theatre Is before but this was the first time I’d seen it in action.
It’s Our Theatre: Thurrock began in September 2009 with a live recruitment roadshow featuring artists from Hip Hop group Throwdown UK. It toured secondary schools and offered over 1000 young people free workshops and opportunities to take part in talent ‘slam’ nights. The best were selected to form the company I saw at Thameside Theatre. They are now engaged on a three-year project during which they can take the Bronze and Silver Arts Awards.
‘For too long the art of making theatre for young people has been marginalised by both lack of resources and its own paucity of ambition’ said Stuart Mullins, Creative Director at Theatre Is. ‘We aim to change that.’
Amongst the non-professionals, the quality of performance at Thameside Theatre is, as yet, fairly basic because clearly these young people are still on the nursery slopes and, for many, just finding the confidence to get on stage is a massive achievement given the lousy deal life in general has thrown at them – and that makes their performances deeply moving and shows that these teenagers have already travelled a huge distance. But what really impresses me is the way Theatre Is is encouraging these young people to generate work for themselves and their communities – to take charge and to realise that they can do much, much more than they thought they could.
Nothing succeeds like success as the old saw has it and the youngsters I saw in Thurrock will, I am sure, build on successes like this and go on to further develop their skills and make a real difference – to other people’s lives as well as their own.
I headed back towards the ribbon of lights on the Dartford Bridge feeling quite uplifted … and reflecting, for the thousandth time, on the transformational power of the performing arts.