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You are in: London > Entertainment > Theatre > Features > Plenty ado about something

Production image from the NYT's 2006 Hackney shows

The NYT celebrates with a new Henry V

Plenty ado about something

The National Youth Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary. From humble beginnings, this unique London-based institution has touched the lives of thousands of young people, including our own special correspondent Kurt Barling...

Twenty-six years ago I jumped on a train from my home in North London and broadened my horizons for good. 

Like many thousands of teenagers around the country, I had auditioned for a new theatrical experience. Perhaps more than most, I was surprised to have made it through. 

My local comprehensive, Southgate School, had always had successful drama productions, but the chance to be part of a national celebration of young acting and backstage talent appeared quite intimidating. Joining the company proved it was nothing of the sort.

"For the NYT's founder, Michael Croft, the greatest stage was life itself - and that has become part of the charm of this great institution..."

Kurt Barling

I recall on the first day hearing a range of accents that I'd rarely experienced in person before. Back then there was certainly a heavy public school bias but surprisingly few airs and graces amongst my peers. We were all proud to be members of what was then called the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

When founder Michael Croft began it back in 1956, it's doubtful he could have imagined his venture would grow into the premier youth theatre company in Europe. 

The NYT has remained the first taste of West End performance for many aspiring stars of stage and screen. Alumni include Kate Adie, Timothy Dalton, Helen Mirren, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lynda Bellingham, Orlando Bloom, Paula Wilcox, Matt Lucas and David Walliams to name just a few.


On our first day Michael Croft addressed us all in a school hall not far from its base at the time, the Shaw Theatre in Euston. The essence of his message was that many of us would not end up on the theatrical stage, but would take the experience and use it in other walks of life. 

For Croft the greatest stage was life itself, and that has become part of the charm of this great institution. Accountants, journalists, lawyers, police officers and many others have surely benefited from the experience they gained in its midst as teenagers.

Young and old members meet onstage at the Empire

Old and new Henry V casts meet onstage

In September this year the latest crop of teenage talent was performing beyond its years at the Hackney Empire in abridged versions of Shakespeare's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. After the production, the cast of the NYT's 1956 version of Henry V came up onstage, all in their sixties now and proof of the institution's enduring legacy.

Through these 50 years of nurturing youthful dreams the NYT has reached out beyond the confines of its direct talent pool. 

It has developed a range of outreach partnerships, which means that more deprived communities also get to experience theatre. 

It has also created constructive links to help other agencies foster more positive messages for children in communities under stress. NYT actors for instance have recently made a series of films for which are distributed to schools nationally and deal with issues of personal safety for the under-16s.

It hasn't always been plain sailing. There was a time in the early 80s when the NYT looked like it might run out of funding. Thankfully, the Arts Council and other sponsors finally saw the lasting value of its work and, as a consequence, its future health looks more secure.

talent auditions

Personally speaking, my experience a quarter of a century ago has encouraged an enduring admiration for the theatrical craft. 

Some might argue that I've never quite left the art of performance behind since television journalism is partly about the ability to use the visual strengths of the medium. 

Matt Lucas and David Walliams

Ex-members Matt Lucas and David Walliams

But more importantly, the NYT taught me the value of living in an open society where expressing oneself should not be defined by what other people think of you.

One of its enduring qualities is that anyone around the country between the ages of 13 and 21 can become part of the company. Long before X-Factor and the like, the theatre had pioneered regional talent auditions and now has sixteen audition centres around the country. 


last updated: 06/02/2009 at 12:35
created: 23/10/2006

You are in: London > Entertainment > Theatre > Features > Plenty ado about something

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