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Now all the youth of England are on fire – especially in Chichester

I write in praise of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Learning, Education and Participation (LEAP) department. Led by Dale Rooks, it reaches 800 young people and I think it is one of the best youth theatres in the country.

Last week I was in Chichester for Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a stage adaptation by Philip Wilson of seven of Philip Pulman’s retellings of stories told by the Brothers Grimm. The open air, promenade setting was seven different, stunningly atmospheric, leafy spots in the Cass Sculpture Foundation on the top of the Downs at Goodwood. There, 54 young actors and musicians, 29 of whom were taking part in their first CFT show, demonstrated what they can do. And it’s considerable.

I – alongside an enthusiastic and engaged audience of children, grandparents and parents plus Daniel Evans, CFT’s artistic director, musicianJoe Stilgoe, and various CFT professionals and trustees – watched the young cast chanting, narrating, dancing, speaking with audible aplomb over the rusting trees and captivating everyone present with these quirky, often dark, sometimes funny stories including Little Red Riding Hood, The Juniper Tree and Hans My Hedgehog. A band of young players led by professional MD Miles Russell, led us from place to place with Eamonn O’Dwyer’s haunting music.  The piece is a wonderful choice for a youth theatre – so much casting scope amongst all those eligible princes, witches, cannibals, predators, childless couples, troubled kings, strange offspring, scheming girls and more.

And the standard they achieve is remarkable. Now, I honestly don’t believe that the young people in West Sussex are actually more talented then their counterparts anywhere else. No. this is down to skilled, charismatic leadership (Rooks herself directs Grimm Tales) and the committed investment by CFT in this aspect of its work.

Each Christmas the main house is given over to LEAP to stage a production which becomes CFT’s Christmas show – you could say it’s a leap (sorry) of faith but it pays off in spades. Last year thousands of local people enjoyed LEAP’s excellent Peter Pan and there’s a production of Beauty and the Beast coming up this year which I’m looking forward as keenly as I would anything else CFT mounts. Running Wild which transferred to the Open Air Theatre Regents Park and has done very well on tour, began life here too.

LEAP also feeds into other CFT productions. There are two children in the opening scene of The Stepmother, which I saw on the same day as Grimm Tales. They (there are two pairs who alternate) are recruited from the youth theatre. So were the boys  in both last year’s The Enemy of the People and this season’s Forty Years On. It’s very encouraging to see a company not only, doing all it can to provide astonishingly high quality learning and development opportunities for young people, but also occasionally giving them “real” professional work.

Of course there are plenty of other good youth theatres run by venues up and down the country. I’ve seen lots of them in action and admired their work. Nonetheless I think Chichester is pushing the boat out further than most because it’s an integrated part of the organisation not something earnestly bolted on. And the difference shines out.  Warmest congratulations to LEAP and all who sail in her.

My review of Grimm Tales for Young and Old

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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