Imagine performing your end-of-year play on the prestigious Olivier stage at the National Theatre. As part of the Connections festival, over the past six days ten schools and youth groups have been treading the boards at one of London’s most iconic venues, each performing a completely new play penned by a professional playwright. The double-bill I was treated to consisted firstly of a piece called Pronoun by Evan Placey, which was performed enthusiastically by Cornwall College St. Austell. The work centres on gender identity, as a young teen struggles to come to terms with being transgender. The second offering of the evening was Catherine Johnson’s A Letter to Lacey, a musical in which Bristolian school group John Cabot Academy explores the concept of domestic abuse in teenage relationships.

As with many of the set texts I recall studying at school, both plays are moralistic with clear educational messages. However, I can’t help but think that the greatest lesson that the 5000 young people across the length and breadth of the country involved in the Connections festival will have take away from the project is probably the unforgettable experience of performing on a professional stage. Both groups of young performers shone with self-confidence as they commanded the space with buoyant conviction.

The evening began with Pronoun, a work in which childhood sweethearts Josh and Isabella are busy flicking through their Lonely Planet guides, planning their gap year to Thailand. One thing they haven’t prepared for, however, is Isabella’s decision to become a boy called Dean. This comical love story explores transition, hormones and tolerance. As Josh and Dean, Chris Martin and Rebecca Herrington are very strong protagonists who convey the awkward teenage interactions in a naturalistic and authentically believable manner. I also enjoyed Cornwall College St. Austell’s clever use of the ensemble, for instance when a large group of students spilt the part of one teacher or doctor,  with every one of them accentuating the same gestures and echoing similar lines of speech, which comically magnify the exaggerated characteristics. Another stand-out performer is Chloe Bruce in her portrayal of the pair’s best friend, Laura. Pronoun isn’t without its flaws: I personally didn’t really understand what the musical interludes add to the work, and Dean’s interaction with an anthropomorphic James Dean poster is a bizarre digression that feels out of place in an otherwise naturalistic work. That said, Cornwall College St. Austell present the complex and topical subject matter of being transgender in a mature and engaging manner.

A Letter to Lacey tells the troubling story of Kara, a naive girl who suffered at the hands of her abusive boyfriend Reece. Two years on, and now a single mother, Kara feels compelled to write a letter warning Kyle’s new girlfriend about his violent temper. The role of Kara is divided between Polly Rorison, who narrates the ordeal, bright-eyed Jade Goodyear, who plays a giddy and slightly ditzy younger version of Kara, and Kim Veitch, who evokes the present-day downtrodden manifestation of the protagonist. All three incarnations of Kara deliver emotive performances and are strong singers. As per Catherine Johnson’s previous form, with her hit Mamma Mia, A Letter to Lacey is also a musical. Yet for me, there is something uncomfortably jarring about having  upbeat all-singing, all-dancing moments injected into a play that focuses on the idea of domestic abuse.

After the jubilant John Cabot Academy had taken their bow, new artistic director of the National Theatre Rufus Norris took to the stage, and recounted his own involvement in youth theatre at the age of just 15. Norris is clearly a champion of the next generation being exposed to the arts from as young an age as possible, and experiences and opportunities such as Connections are clearly instrumental in ensuring that this tradition continues.

The Connections festival took place at the National Theatre from 2-7 July. For details of how to get involved with next year’s festival visit the Connections festival website.