Norfolk theatre company’s new production gives Jane Eyre a musical makeover
- Credit: supplied by Norfolk Youth Music Theatre
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has been given a musical makeover in the latest production from Norfolk Youth Music Theatre. Arts correspondent Emma Knights finds out more from director Adrian Connell.
Charlotte Brontë's classic story of Jane Eyre is set to jump out from the page to the stage with the help of a talented cast of young performers in Norwich this month.
For the award-winning Norfolk Youth Music Theatre - which is now in its 23rd year - has picked one of history's greatest novels for its latest showstopping performance.
Jane Eyre The Musical will take to the stage at Norwich Playhouse next week from April 11 to 14 and director Adrian Connell said audiences were in for a treat.
The show will see the famous love story of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, with all its dramatic twists and turns, played out with a musical score by composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and book by John Caird.
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Altogether 22 young people star in the show with the performers ranging in age from 10 to 25 - and 17-year-old Ellen Smith and 18-year-old Alfie Mazzei lead the cast as Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.
Mr Connell said the show was picked because Norfolk YMT liked, where possible, to perform more unusual shows and that while the novel was well known, the beautiful score it had inspired was far less so.
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And he added people should not underestimate the impressive talents of the young cast presenting this musical adaptation of the much-loved literary classic.
'It's a challenging show and although it's set in 1847 the music has a contemporary feel to it and the staging is very modern. The cast we have assembled are astonishing in their grasp of the complex score and the maturity of their approach,' said Mr Connell, who is also the founder of Norfolk YMT.
He added the show kept largely to the novel's original plot and that the performance would likely appeal to both fans of the book as well as newcomers to the world created by Charlotte Brontë.
Jane Eyre The Musical is one of more than than 70 shows Norfolk YMT has created over the last 23 years and 66-year-old Mr Connell, a tireless champion of youth theatre, has directed every single one.
Hundreds of young people have enjoyed being part of company which has picked up all manner of accolades including six best production awards, three best musical awards and two best youth production awards from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) as well as many four and five star ratings for its Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows.
The company has most definitely come a long way since its beginnings in the mid 1990s, initially starting out as the North Norfolk YMT before branching out to the whole county.
'I set up the group in 1995 having been a chaperone for the National YMT, with a grant of £1000 from the Norwich and Peterbourgh Building Society,' explained Mr Connell, who lives in Beeston Common, Sheringham.
'In those days there were virtually no opportunities for teenagers in theatre in Norfolk and I got 250 applicants for the first show. From the outset we decided to try and present new works by living composers and have staged Once Upon A War and Whistle Down The Wind by the composer Richard Taylor, three of Jeremy James-Taylor's musical-dramas, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Bob Tomson (Blood Brothers), The Vackees by Hyawyn Oram and Carl Davis and Battle of Boat by Ethan Maltby. And all those living artists have visited and worked alongside the casts.'
Added to this Norfolk YMT has successfully tackled big-name mainstream musicals such as Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd and Oliver! and it has performed in venues including Norwich Playhouse, the city's Maddermarket Theatre and King's Lynn Corn Exchange.
However, Mr Connell was keen to stress that it was not all awards and standing ovations, and that hard work and dedicated fundraising had helped keep Norfolk YMT going over the years.
'It hasn't all been plain sailing. We were horrified to stage Sweeney Todd at King's Lynn and discover The Stranglers were playing outside the theatre at the same time as the show. We lost a lot of money and to rescue the company I set up a walk from Sheringham to Norwich. No one thought I could do it so I had a quiet test run on Friday and then did the real walk on Sunday. 72 miles in all! It raised £6,000. There have been quite a few 'rescue' missions over the years,' he said.
He said the experiences of all the young people had always been Norfolk YMT's number one priority both on-stage and off.
'Many have helped direct, choreograph and run lighting and sound for our productions. It's very much a children's group and I keep 'the adults' out of it as much as possible,' said Mr Connell.
Some of the company's alumni have gone on to achieve great things in the arts - such as Hollywood star Sam Claflin and Olivier Award-winning actor David Thaxton - but equally important to Mr Connell are the many hundreds of other young people who are all part of the Norfolk YMT success story.
'What is most rewarding is almost wherever I go in Norfolk someone will say to me 'I was in one of your shows' and it's really nice to catch up with them and hear how much they enjoyed being part of the Norfolk YMT,' he said.
And as the latest Norfolk YMT cast members now prepare for opening night, Mr Connell hopes audiences old and new will be impressed by their musical retelling of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
• Jane Eyre The Musical is at Norwich Playhouse from April 11 to 14. To book, visit www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk or call 01603 598598.
• For more about Norfolk YMT, which rehearses at The Wharf Academy, in Oak Street, Norwich, visit www.norfolkymt.net