Category Archives: National Student Drama Festival

The people securing the future of theatre

  • From The Sunday Times, April 11, 2010
  • They’re young, they’re keen and they know how to tell a story. This year’s National Student Drama Festival is full of talent

  • Robert Hewison
In the frame: the University of Hull's Tell Tale picked up three  awards

(Allan Titmuss)

In the frame: the University of Hull’s Tell Tale picked up three awards

Stephen Daldry, the mastermind behind Billy Elliot, that internationally successful parable of the triumph of young talent over adversity, has sounded a warning. Theatre is doing well, he says, because of the strong leadership created by public funding for arts. But “there are draconian cuts around the corner”. In the present climate, he predicts arts funding will suffer: “The boom we’re seeing could well turn into retreat.”

The 700 young people in Scarborough for the 55th National Student Drama Festival know what Daldry is talking about, and the uncertain future they face. Ever since it was founded by the Sunday Times drama critic Harold Hobson in 1956, the festival has been a feeder route into professional theatre, and a seedbed for the creative sector as a whole, from the West End to the BBC. A vital 24% of the festival’s funding comes from the Arts Council — the rest from The Sunday Times, Scarborough Council, sponsorship, trusts and earned income. This healthily mixed economy produces the cultural leadership of tomorrow. But, as elsewhere in the cultural sector, the question raised is: in straitened times, why should anyone be subsidised for what they love to do?

The same quandary faces the idealistic governor of the infant colony of New South Wales in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, given a marvellously expansive revival by Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company — its participation a reminder that youth theatres, as well as universities, schools and colleges, are among the 100 or so groups seen by the festival’s selectors with a view to being invited to show their work in Scarborough. Wertenbaker’s governor thinks the convicts transported to Australia would benefit from putting on a play, but — in a resonant parallel to today — not only are the colony’s rations having to be cut, but he commands philistine officers who see no point in trying to civilise those they hang and flog.

The convicts’ cantankerous rehearsals had a particular piquancy for the festival’s theatre-minded audience, and through music and dance a large cast created a sense of the mysterious, aboriginal Australia the colonisers will destroy. But above all, this heart-lifting production demonstrates the transformative power of theatre, as the convicts discover their dignity through making art. The festival judges — the actors Joanna Scanlan and Cyril Nri, and I — had no hesitation in giving the company an award for their ensemble playing, and their director, Miranda Cromwell, an award for her artistic leadership.

The terrifying opposite to the imagined utopia of early Australia must be the modern dystopia of Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love (Leeds University). This grim reworking of Euripides was originally written for six characters and a small chorus, but the unstoppable young director Ashley Scott Layton decided to add a punk band, animal puppets and a mob of drunks, slags and chavs, whose murderous lust turns this nihilistic tragedy into a surreal version of a community play.

Yet this only sharpens the focus on the performances by Rachel Helen Shaw as Phaedra and Rupert Lazarus as Hippolytus, who won Spotlight awards for their professional promise. Layton, winner of the Directors’ Guild award, had taken his cue from Kane’s comment that this was a comedy — but written when she was deeply depressed. Lazarus’s insouciance at his castration perfectly caught this Artaudian absurdity, the laughter of someone writing a suicide note.

The Whitehouse Institute (Manchester University) found comedy in the contemporary art scene. Presented as a gallery opening, this participative piece came complete with canapés, video and Tracey Eminesque works, but misfired, unclear whether its target was the art, or those who protest against it. It was partially rescued by Joe Von Malachowski as the gallery director, last seen disappearing down the road in the boot of the protesters’ car. Such suffering for his art won him a commendation for comedy.

Others took modern life far more seriously. Northampton University’s Guidelines for Measures to Cope bravely mixed techniques from physical and verbatim theatre to alert us to the self-abhorrence suffered by those with body dysmorphic disorder. Dartington College of Arts won an award for 4 Bar and Rising, an imaginatively devised exploration of the pressures on young men. In a strikingly economic and abstract interpretation, a stretched strip of industrial latex became emblematic of the way we are all about to snap.

Pressures of a very direct kind bore down on In Loving Memory, by a very young company from Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, who took us into the culture of drugs and guns that inflame the turf wars of west London. Rap and hip-hop shaped the 29 performers’ sense of themselves and was a natural form of expression. Out of this commendation-winning company performance soared Christian Asare, winning an individual award for dance.

The possibilities of physical theatre were explored in all three of these shows, but, in however abstract and fragmented a fashion, they were also answering the theatre’s impulse to tell stories that, by their telling, hold out possibilities of redemption. Bad House, a second production from Leeds University, used ghost stories to spook and entertain. The mixture of the natural and supernatural aimed for was more successfully achieved in Warwick University’s revival of Marina Carr’s Irish melodrama By the Bog of Cats, which won the festival-goers’ award, decided by popular vote. The production’s success came from director Bertrand Lesca’s atmospheric integration of actors and musicians, which won the company the Cameron Mackintosh award. Lizzie Holmes also won an award for her work in a supporting role, and Rio West a commendation for her affecting portrayal of a very young girl.

As Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods reminds us, the archetypal stories that theatre loves to play with have their dark side. In a year notable for ambitiously sized productions, University College London’s revival, complete with 14-piece orchestra, stands out. Bath Spa University’s revival of Martin McDonagh’s black comedy The Pillowman showed how dangerous the fantasies in children’s stories can be. De Montfort University’s brief Angel, more performance art than theatre, enacted the theatre theorist Richard Foreman’s argument that storytelling is in fact theatre’s ultimate distraction.

There can be no more powerful counter-argument to Foreman than the appropriately titled Tell Tale (Hull University). Written by Sarah Davies in collaboration with her cast, this combined an avant-garde exploration of themes of fragmentation and loss of identity with the traditional theatrical virtues of colour, laughter and song. Trapped in a mysterious, dressing-up-box world, the characters found their way out by telling stories. Like Wertenbaker’s convicts, their redemption came through theatre’s transformative power. Davies won awards both for writing and directing, the company for their theatrical innovation. Here, as throughout the festival, was a future leadership not yet willing to retreat.

NSDF’s funding partners are Arts Council England, The Sunday Times, Scarborough Borough Council, Spotlight, Equity, Methuen Drama, the Noël Coward Foundation, the Mackintosh Foundation, the Split Infinitive Trust, the Martin Bowley Charitable Trust, the Calmcott Trust, the Goldsmiths’ Company, the Eranda Foundation, the D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust and the Shepherd Charitable Trust

The winners

Sunday Times Playwriting Award: Sarah Davies (Hull)

Buzz Goodbody Student Director Award: Sarah Davies (Hull)

Directors’ Guild Award: Ashley Scott Layton (Leeds)

Cameron Mackintosh Music Award: Warwick University

Spotlight Award for Most Promising Actor: Rupert Lazarus (Leeds)

Spotlight Award for Most Promising Actress: Rachel Helen Shaw (Leeds)

Sunday Times Harold Hobson Student Drama Critic Award: Dan Hutton (Cedars Upper School)

Theatre Record Young Critic Award: Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart (Dartington)

International Student Playscript Competition: Richard Watson (Hull)


Artistic Leadership: Miranda Cromwell (Bristol Old Vic Young Company)

Ensemble: Bristol Old Vic Young Company

Devised Theatre: Dartington

Theatrical Innovation: Hull University

Dance: Christian Asare (Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College)

Supporting Role: Lizzie Holmes (Warwick)


Company: Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College

Comedy: Joe Von Malachowski (Manchester)

Acting: Rio West (Warwick)


Set Design: Dave Larking (NSDF)

Costume Design: Liesel Corp (Bristol Old Vic Young Company)

Lighting Design: Anthony Neylon (Northampton)

Sound Design: Rob Morton (Warwick)

Stage Electrics Award for Lighting: Jen Sharkey (LIPA)

Stage Electrics Award for Sound: Alex Twedell (Durham University)

Stage Electrics Award for Technical Achievement: Neale Dutton (Edinburgh)

Local Organiser: Fabia Ward (Hull, Scarborough Campus)

Festival-Goers’ Award: Warwick University