The value of youth theatre

A usual night at the youth theatre and the final stages of rehearsals are well under way for this year’s production. But the weary director struggles to get the cast together. Javed, who’s taking the lead role, has been dragged outside by his girlfriend for a domestic, Aftab and Wendy are snogging in the corner, and Kylie’s “pissed off for a fag”.

I’m talking, you understand, of the dress rehearsals at Streetwyys Youth Theatre in Burnley, which made up the first half of last night’s production of Mixed Up North at the Royal. A play within a play, a cast within a cast, this production told the story of social tensions in Burnley, and the well-meaning endeavours of community worker Trisha to unite the youth through theatre.

The audience at the Royal was relatively small, but this was to the advantage of the fifteen-or-so of us from MYT on the outing, because we were given a free upgrade from the gods to the lower circle (although this took away my excuse for wondering around with a cushion and a pair of binoculars). From the outset, we the audience played the role of Trisha’s friends who had come to watch the dress rehearsal.

At first, I found it hard to connect with some of the characters because their accents just weren’t convincing enough. That was until I realised that the cast were genuinely from Bolton, twenty kilometres south from Burnley, and it was because of my ownnaïveté that I’d never come into contact with a hybrid Asian-Northern English accent (the fact that I just italicised “naïveté” as living proof that I am by no means street-wise).

At the interval, I heard a couple of my friends criticise Mixed Up North, and modern theatre in general, because it only ever seems to represent the youth with this violent, socially unstable stereotype. But the stories featured in the production were actually very real. The writers had travelled to Burnley after the riots – or “disturbances”, depending on your perspective – to collect real-life stories which then made up the character backgrounds for Mixed Up North.

As such, when Javed, Aftab, Wendy and the other members of the youth theatre told stories of their troubled childhoods, they did so in the past tense, which gave the impression of an interview. I was still drawn in to their stories, particularly the longer and more graphic ones, but I couldn’t relate to the emotion the characters were meant to be feeling. That’s not to say the play was done in a Brechtian style; direct address and audience participation were being used throughout. But I think the production was less about the Burnley riots and social tensions, and more about the dynamics of the youth theatre.

At the end of the first half, Javed pulls out of the dress rehearsals, meaning the show is cancelled. Instead, Trisha decides to put on a question-and-answer session, hosted by the youth theatre and attended by members of the community. Most of the dialogue takes place between a friend of the youth theatre and a loud, boorish local councillor. At this point, I saw members of the real audience nodding off. On the other hand, I was getting genuinely worked-up by the debate – possibly because I’ve attended too many of these sorts of meetings, and that self-righteous, alienated councillor archetype is only too recognisable.

There were some positively cringey moments during the debate, when the script became centred on the importance of theatre in the community. The parallels being drawn between Streetwyys Youth Theatre (spelt with two y’s – “one for the Asian youth and another for the white youth”) and the real-life Out of Joint Theatre company were at times tooobvious – as though the latter were trying to justify why they were putting on the production.

But as an audience, that was something we had to get over. The play did have a very relevant message, which after all, we had come to hear. There were some very funny moments too, particularly when Jenny, the supervisor at the community centre, would bumble onstage with “a brew and a slice of lemon drizzle” halfway through the characters’ heartfelt soliloquies. It was moments like these that brought the production back down to earth, and kept it from becoming too sincere a documentary.

By Elliot Bannister

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