Young Critics On The Edge 2016 – Two Perspectives from Northern Ireland

Niamh Meehan and Tiarnán McCartney were the two Young Critics selected from Northern Ireland to take part in Young Critics On The Edge in Birmingham from July 3rd- 8th.

They were recruited to the project and supported by  Theatre NI , Young at Art and Theatre For Young Audiences Northern Ireland 

Here Niamh reflects on our week together in Birmingham 

Our week in Birmingham was divided into intensive days filled with workshops, performances and sessions with the creative teams behind the performances. The On The Edge Festival was an impressive amalgamation of different people; all of whom had different skills, were searching to develop different things, and were at different stages in their careers. The plethora of people brought together to celebrate, observe and learn from the exhibitions of theatre for young audiences became not only our friends, but mentors and teachers. There was so much to learn from listening to others experiences, and seeing their work. Our daily interactions and observations became an international education. I can’t emphasise enough that the quality of some of the theatre we seen, was nothing short of outstanding. Certain performances were so powerful, they will resonate with me for a long time.

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Niamh Meehan and Tiarnán McCartney Photo Credit: Alan King

My concept of theatre for young audiences has expanded from previously rigid preconceptions, to an understanding of this medium being open, complex and wonderful way to tell stories which serve all ages. In this way the Young Critics programme has been a success as it has been influential on a number of levels; from how I view theatre, to considerations about my future career. I hope to see the Young Critics programme expand as the positive consequences of its investment will benefit reviewers, theatre makers, and theatre goers alike. Reviews provide constructive and positive reinforcement for the artistic decisions creative teams are making, as well as providing shows with a public platform and recognition of their presence. Equally as performances are created to be seen and felt by audiences, the existence of reviews can inspire more people to attend performances.

I feel like everyone has something to say and write – the pivotal point around instigating the writing process lies in gaining confidence and nurturing potential; whether or not someone can avail of the tools and support to provide a reinforcing structure and coherence to someone’s opinions. The Young Critics programme has been the first of its kind I have seen which has focused on developing the critical skills surrounding understanding, and reviewing theatre in a constructive fashion. Being able to communicate, observe, analyse, evaluate and review are not just skills which apply to the writing and reviewing craft; they are the foundational skills which lead to professional, creative and academic progression. The programme has a far-reaching capability to improve people’s existing and untapped potentials, as well as their eligibility for a wide range of future opportunities. Not only this, but it has provided a creative outlet to explore the options we have when delivering our opinions on theatre, and on its social and cultural significance. Lastly, it has not only given myself, but all of the Young Critics the confidence to share our opinions and our love for theatre.

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Niamh Meehan and fellow Young Critic Ellie Woolman. Photo: Alan King

I owe my thanks to all the constituent theatre groups and people who have made the Young Critic programme not only possible, but a success.

Meanwhile  Tiarnán McCartney has this critique of his experiences 

Young Critics: On The Edge A Review

This tale begins upon arrival in Birmingham through the hazy and travel weary perspective of the Northern Irish contingent. A fierce heat reflected off flashy modern architecture foreshadowed what was to be an exciting and highly contrasted week of events, although exposition began quite slowly. It was hours after this initial landing before we saw any real progression in the narrative, however once the characters began to be introduced momentum was quickly built.

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Tiarnán McCartney (L) with fellow Young Critics Connor Gibson and Joe Trickey . Photo Credit: Alan King

A cast of 12 young writers and theatre enthusiasts was a risky decision at best and initial presentation of character was chaotic and lacked any real structure. The sudden barrage of names and nationalities was almost overwhelming at times, though credit to the members of the cast as very soon clear personalities and roles were carved and a very sharp, likeable and witty ensemble began to take shape. A diverse and intelligent bunch; a delightful sequence played out over the backdrop of a quiet Asian restaurant allowed further development of character and chemistry.

A warm prelude gave way to some serious drama as the young critics began their intense work-shopping experiences, guided by the wise Anna and Alan. Serious insight and depth of knowledge was displayed throughout the course of the next few days and emotions were running high as opinions were hotly debated in the sweltering work-shopping chambers. Questions were being asked of the true role of a critic, visceral reactions and at its heart; aesthetic appreciation.

The first show was a delightful, and almost deceiving, introduction to the series of plays that would be observed. A warm and playful piece called ‘Boing!’ that beautifully visualised the struggle for young children on Christmas Eve and how easily plans for sleeping can go astray. The strong fluid choreography and engaging child-like energy left the Young Critics charmed. And so the bar was set high. And a consensus of general dissatisfaction was reached with regard to the later show. However visually colourful and stunning, and with an amiable fellow in the wings providing quirky and rousing accompaniment, some Young Critics were left disappointed at the fact ‘Brush’ did contain much “Brush” at all.

An interesting development to the narrative was the introduction of ‘Marmalade’, at the Repertoire. This set-up allowed relationships and connections to develop on a more personal level and provided ample comic relief. In truth, at times conversation became erratic, dialogue was left lacking any real sense and questions were to be asked of why any of this was included? But this teaches us not to simply ask “Why?” As this is implies there is a definite reason behind it, but rather “What was the thinking behind this?”

Day Four still peering cautiously over The Edge, the Young Critics did to think to expect ‘Het Hamiltoncomplex’: a high-octane and fetishised blast of thirteen year old sexuality from Belgian director Lies Pauwels. As many questions were raised socially and ethically as were eyebrows, though I conclude this is a vital aspect of not just theatre but of any art form. Were the girls too young? Did they know what they were doing? Who was really doing the sexualising? Was it the girls? Was it Pauwels? Was it us?


Tiarnán McCartney (R) alongside fellow Young Critics Tejal Mandalia and Andy McLoughlin at the Old Rep Bermingham for The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective Photo: Alan King

All these questions were still milling about the heads of the Young Critics when the time came for the final show which was full of music, innovation and creativity. The Broken Beat Collective left spirits high that evening and Wales got stuffed by Portugal, so discussion was left for the following morning when a debate about culture left tensions running high. It was satisfying to watch how each personality had become gradually more comfortable and confident enough to push each other’s and their opinions.

The climax of this 5 day plot was a presentation slash panel discussion in which the Young Critics gave an impassioned performance and delivered delicate analysis and observations from the week past. This was met with standing ovation. The message I felt was important; that there is no good and there is no bad. No artist sets out to create bad work. A sudden twist revealed to everyone’s shock and horror that Korean theatre company Theatre Haddangse, creators of ‘Brush’ had in fact lost half their equipment in travelling to the UK. “Oh, how harsh we had been!” said the Young Critics “How guilty do we now feel!”


Our Young Critics look decidedly On The Edge at BCU prior to their presentation. Photo: Alan King

Friday morning’s performance, in my opinion, lacked lustre and passion as the exhausted ensemble said goodbye in the place they had first met. Hugs were hugged, tears were shed and doors were left swinging open for a sequel or two.

Young Critics 2: In The Middle. Coming this Fall.

Young Critics On The Edge  is a collaboration between Barnstorm Theatre Company,NAYD (National Association for Youth Drama) Ireland and Mess Up The Mess, Get the Chance (Wales) in conjunction with the Symposium strand of theASSITEJ Artistic Gathering for 2016.

Niamh Meehan and Tiarnán McCartney  participation at Young Critics On The Edge was supported by  Theatre NI , Young at Art and Theatre For Young Audiences Northern Ireland 


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