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01 August 07

Andy Hillier reports on a musical theatre project in Peterborough is giving young people without a performance background the chance to be on the stageAndy Hillier reports on a musical theatre project in Peterborough is giving young people without a performance background the chance to be on the stage.

Fourteen-year-old Justin Butler immediately makes his presence known on stage by springing into a cartwheel and bursting into song. Dressed in a loud 80s shirt and light-blue jeans, he looks every bit the confident stage performer. For Justin, though, this is a unique experience. Being dyslexic, he would usually struggle to read out loud in front of a class 30 teenagers, yet alone an audience of 800 people.

But here on stage at the Cresset Theatre in Peterborough you would never guess that Justin can't read or spell "the big words", as he puts it.

Justin is one of more than 100 young people taking part in Peterborough Young People's Service's Fame the Musical. The show is being run by the youth service's West End in the City scheme, which aims to give people aged 13 to 19 who might not ordinarily get the opportunity to appear on stage the chance to perform alongside their more accomplished peers.

Designed to unite

The show has brought together a range of young people from different local projects, including Interface Youth Theatre, Peterborough Youth Voice and the Positive Activities for Young People Funky Fairies group, as well as young singers from Essex County Council Youth Service.

The production was the brainchild of Caroline Dolby, curriculum specialist youth worker at Peterborough Young People's Service, who noticed a growing interest in musical theatre among young people following the success of TV shows such as How do you solve a problem like Maria?. A keen musician herself and actively involved in an established youth music project, she believed it was the ideal way of attracting young people who might not ordinarily think about attending a youth project.

"There were lots of drama and music projects locally where young people could get involved if they had a particular talent but nothing for those who just wanted the chance to be part of a production," she says.

Ads were placed in youth centres and local newspapers in January and the youth service was overwhelmed by the response. More than 100 young people expressed an interest in getting involved, either on stage or behind the scenes. Rehearsals for the shows began later that month and continued on a weekly basis until July, with extra sessions run during the school holidays.

Dolby says the show has required a level of commitment beyond what some of the young people have demonstrated before. "Some of the girls who have come to us have behavioural problems and have struggled just to sit in a rehearsal for more than two hours. But they've learned motivational and time-keeping skills and hopefully they will feel it has been useful."

Another aim of the scheme has been to improve the image of young people living in the area. Many residents tend to view young people as yobbish, claims Denham Hughes, senior practitioner at Peterborough Young People's Service, and this perception is often reinforced in the local media. "The young people get a raw deal," he says. "If you believe what you read in the papers, every young person carries a knife."

Staging a musical that local residents can attend demonstrates that young people are capable of great things and don't want to hang out on street corners causing trouble, believes Hughes.

Playing one of the lead roles in the musical is 13-year-old Kamal Hyman. The star of two previous youth theatre productions, Kamal has enjoyed working alongside young people from a variety of backgrounds.

Talent rewarded

Kamal and his family moved from Hayes in Middlesex just over two years ago and he admits he has found it hard meeting young people with similar interests to himself. Being cast as Tyrone, the talented black street dancer with attitude, has been one of the highlights of his year. "I wasn't sure I'd get the part," he says. "I've acted and done some dancing but I'm not a strong singer."

He's had to learn raps and improve his dancing for the role. "It's been tough but fun," admits Hyman. "The workers have been really supportive."

Fourteen-year-old Ben Hachula has also appreciated being part of the project. A young carer whose mother sufferers from depression, he has come along for the day to hand out tickets and show people to their seats. "I'm not really one for going on stage but I like helping out behind the scenes," he says. "It's been a fun day."

Dolby says the scheme has exceeded her expectations. Many of the young people have expressed an interest in attending youth service projects over the school holidays and Dolby and her colleagues now intend to begin rehearsals for High School Musical in the autumn. "The young people are really keen to keep involved," says Dolby.

While the production might not have found the next Connie Fisher or Lee Mead, it has certainly given young people like Justin more confidence. "I'm definitely going to put my name forward for the new production," he says.



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