Youth revolution for Les Miserables

It started as a modest project some 16 years ago to give youngsters the opportunity to take part in musicals. Today the Norfolk Youth Music Theatre is a nationally acclaimed organisation. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH reports.

The costumes are being altered and the sets being painted - the final rehearsals for Les Miserables are taking place.

The show opens next week and already artistic director Adrian Connell is not only deep into the following show — but also the one after that.

'It is hard work,' said Adrian, who dedicates more than 25 hours a week to the company. 'This is a voluntary job – in fact, the Norfolk Youth Music Theatre is entirely run by volunteers but the standard of what we are able to produce with these young people makes it worthwhile.

'People come to see the shows and simply cannot believe what they are seeing and hearing.'

It was through his work as head of music at Broadland High School that Adrian decided back in 1996 to give youngsters a stage on which to display their talents. After years of mounting school productions, he took one par-ticular group down to London to audition for the National Youth Music Theatre.

'On the way home we were discussing how difficult it was to get in and one of the girls asked why we couldn't form our own group,' he remembered.

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'So I joined the National Youth Music Theatre as a helper to see what was involved and then decided to start up a group in North Norfolk.'

The idea was to take five or six particularly talented youngsters from several schools in the area but after advertising locally he found himself swamped with calls and letters from interested children.

'We had inquiries from about 200 people and ended up auditioning 120. We had rehearsal space in Aylsham but it quickly became apparent we needed somewhere else - and we needed to be in Norwich. We had children travelling up from places like Bungay and Diss,' he said. 'The whole thing had just snowballed.'

The North Norfolk group soon became a Norfolk group, with the Maddermarket Theatre, in Norwich, as its base. Youngsters would be auditioned for a particular show and would then take part in rehearsals in the run-up.

Soon the group started winning awards from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. These included Best Production Award for Pendragon, in 1999, Best Musical and Best Production Award, again for Pendragon, in 2008, Best Musical Award for The Secret Garden, in 2009, Best Young Performer Award to Ellie Hitchcock-Wyatt, for her role as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, also in 2009, and Best Young Performer Award to Anna Davey, for her role as Annie in Annie, in 2010.

They also won rave four and five star reviews whenever they took shows to Edinburgh.

Many of those taking part in the productions also went on to achieve careers in the business, Adrian pointed out.

'We have had quite a few head off to London to various drama colleges and have people in films and television programmes, and on national tours,' he said.

'Among the best-known, of course, is Sam Claflin, who was Enjolras in Les Mis with us, and is now in Pirates of the Caribbean. 'Then there was also David Thaxton who played Enjolras for several years in Les Mis in the West End, and who won an Olivier Award.'

This production of Les Miserables has a cast of 45 and an orchestra of 12, as well as a back stage crew of some further 20 people. The musical was composed in 1980 by French composer Claude-Michel Sch�nberg. Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, it is set in early 19th century France and follows the stories of many characters as they struggle for redemp-tion and revolution.

'Those who book to come to our show will see something absolutely stunning,' said Adrian. 'Everyone taking part is a singer – most of them have singing lessons - and it sounds amazing.

'At the first rehearsal, I couldn't believe it. We were hit by this unbelievable wall of sound.'

Already working on shows The Card and Nunsense, in versions to take to Edinburgh in the summer, and to perform in Norwich in the autumn, Adrian is also planning a 2012 production of Sweeney Todd.

'They are all going to be good fun to do and fantastic shows to watch,' he said.

'If we weren't achieving results then it would be time to stop. But we do get amazing results because we have some really talented kids here in Norfolk.'

n Les Miserables runs at Norwich Playhouse from April 19-23, �14 (�10 cons), �40 family, 01603 598598,

n For more information on the Norfolk Youth Music Theatre and its shows visit: