The National Theatre’s Connections Festival has once again encouraged youth theatres across the country to bring the talent of young people to the stage. The celebration culminates in the National Theatre’s choice of best directed, performed and potential pieces to grace the historic three theatres at the National. This review focuses on the second night of performances in the Cottesloe Theatre.

Cloud Busting by Helen Blakeman, based upon the novel by Malorie Blackman (a brilliant novelist for young people who continues to inspire in all her writings to date), focuses onthe unlikely friendship between a bully, Sam, and the bullied, Davey. It goes to show that sometimes it is in the opposites of personality that draw people together, as is the case between the level headed Sam (Matthew Bulmer) and the whimsical Davey (Daniel Hutchinson). The piece, performed by The Customs House Youth Theatre and directed by Fiona Kelly and Wayne Miller, brought out the subtleties of Blakeman’s themes, such as what is expected of someone by their peers and the challenges of trying to be yorself. Bulmer’s transition from boisterous bully to accepting and guilt-ridden friend was strong, whilst Hutchinson’s Davey delivered a compelling, otherworldly quality to the philosophical character.

In Kelly and Miller’s production, Cloud Busting is a simple yet effective piece, building upon the strength of the ensemble to convey a sense of classroom narratives. At the same time, creative elements of music, movement and lighting helped to lift the piece away from just a story with a moral. Conveying picture-perfect moments of cloud spotting through gestured movements and mellow music really enriched the story. The Customs House Youth Theatre performed admirably with a text that demands attention to detail and energy as the scenes shift continuously between characters and scenarios. A special nod to Lauren Bonar as Miss Mackie, the flabbergasted teacher attempting to control and inspire her English class. Bonar really excelled herself.

On the other end of the spectrum comes a thoroughly engaging and challenging text by Molly Davies, Shooting Truth. As a group of students embark on a film project during the school holidays, the connections between the true life story of witchcraft and outcast merge with the reconstructed film version, blurring the stories into one. TYKES, under the direction of Leigh Toney, command the text, ploughing through Davies’ script with vigor, humour and a real dedication – this young ensemble certainly proved that they deserved to be at the National Theatre. By the end of Shooting Truth, I was surprised by how much of a journey TYKES’ young cast had taken me on. It’s one thing to get a group of young people to perform a play, but quite another to develop an emotional and physical journey for the audience, too.

The cast are as engaging and committed as the direction itself, playing both the modern day and sixteenth century with ease. There is something particularly charming in having two distinct time periods working simultaneously, which is greatly assisted by the two accents adopted by the cast. There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments with costume and props, and an excellent use of cameras and televisions to capture some close-up shots of the cast responding to their making a film. By the end however, this laughter has completely dissolved as the darker themes of Shooting Truth leave a slight chill down your spine. It would be unfair to praise certain TYKES performers above others, for the standard in this group was exceptional – a testament to the Connections Festival itself.

The National Theatre’s Connections Festival continues with a further six productions, but it’s clear that whilst we’re often quick to judge the work the National Theatre produces, the commitment and experience it offers for young performers and companies is second-to-none.

For more information on NT Connections see the website here. Tickets for Under 26s are only £5 per show, or £8 for two on the same night.