Chichester Festival Youth Theatre: Review - CFYT Celebrates concert shows us how thousands of young lives have been transformed

Chichester Festival Theatre has produced one smash hit after another in its first 60 years – but its biggest achievement is arguably its youth theatre.

CFYT Celebrates! was a fundraising concert on Sunday July 31, 2022, designed to showcase the very best of the talent it has produced over many years.

But this hugely emotional event – which brought the audience to their feet not once but many times throughout the performance – reminded us of the huge debt we all owe to Chichester Festvial Youth Theatre and to the simply extraordinary Dale Rooks who has been the modest and self-deprecating life force behind it.

Through personal testimonies on stage, amazing performances, and filmed commentary from past members, we saw how thousands of young lives have been transformed by their experiences.

CFYT Celebrates! concert on Sunday July 31 at Chichester Festival Theatre.

We heard how CFYT had given them confidence, self-assurance, friendship, the ability to communicate, and the power to be their best – while entertaining some 20,000 people every Christmas with their spectacular shows.

These festive events which elsewhere might be simply an excuse for friends and family to buy tickets have become both a tradition and an institution here in our city of Chichester.

Some of those young people have gone on to achieve spectacularly in the world of arts – while others have embraced their transferable skills to become everything from graphic artists to teachers of distinction.

But in a closing, unscripted piece of film there was one thing they all wanted to say. ‘Thank you.’ And they said it to one person in particular, Dale Rooks, who I know from personal experience has fought with every fibre of her being for every single person who has ever trod the youth theatre boards.

The concert itself featured a host of alumni performers. Let me mention a few of the stand-outs.

Bradley Trevethan, Sam O’Hanlon, Magan O’Hanlon, Alice O’Hanlon … There was a sumptuous ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ sung by Polly Maltby and Ella O’Keeffe – who alternated the Dorothy role in the Wizard of Oz in 2019. On this occasion a star struck microphone tried unsuccessfully to steal the show by misbehaving. The singers were far too accomplished to let it have its way.

Anna Foye’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ brought a tear to the eye such was its emotional power and subtlety while Nick Howard Brown exacted every nuance of humour from his pitch perfect and utterly delightful ‘Reviewing the Situation’ from Oliver! – aided by the enormously talented Katy Ellis on violin.

No wonder Felix Mosse has gone on to enjoy such incredible success given his spine tingling ‘Empty Chairs’ from Les Miserables.

Our hosts Gi Liley and Holly Mirams carried the show with personality and panache.

But, of course, the one person everyone wanted on stage was Dale herself. She was completely overwhelmed by the standing ovation she received before she had even spoken a word.

"It is so lovely to see so many wonderful friends, family and supporters here today. I’ve had the great privilege of working with hundreds, no thousands of young people in the youth theatre over the past twenty plus years. I can tell you it has brought me great happiness and joy.

"You are everywhere. You are in London, you are in cities across the UK, you’re overseas. Some of you are married, some of you have children, and those children are back in the youth theatre which is really lovely to come full circle. And of course we must pay tribute to those young people who sadly have passed way too prematurely.

"You are the most extraordinary group of people. You’re kind, you’re caring, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re hardworking and dedicated, and you are so, so supportive of each other.

"Your energy, enthusiasm and positivity is infectious and I am really, really proud of all of you wherever you are.

"The youth theatre has gone on an incredible journey. It started in the 1980s in the theatre tent with story-telling sessions. And here today we have over 750 youth theatre members and seven satellite locations across the county.

"As Daniel [Evans, Artistic Director] said, we want this programme of work to continue way into the future beyond the next 60 years because it does have great impact and it does have the power to change and transform lives.

"The encouragement and support comes from the top of the theatre, from Daniel and Kathy [Bourne, Executive Director], the Board of Trustees and it filters right the way through the organisation. We are so lucky and grateful we are celebrated in this way.”

She gave a special shout-out to Hannah Hogg the co-director of the concert and she thanked the anonymous supporters who had offered to double the first £10,000 of donations.

It costs more than £350,000 to run CFYT each year and there is a plea for as much financial support as possible.

Daniel Evans led the singing of the final song of the show You Will Never Walk Alone, which encapsulated everything the youth theatre represents.

He said to the audience: “I can’t tell you how inordinately proud we are of our youth theatre and these young people. You have been amazing and you are amazing. We are the envy of many theatres around the country because of this work.

"There are two groups of young people that we also work with that aren’t represented here today – but they are core to us. The first is a group of young carers – as young as five – who have serious, sometimes onerous responsibilities looking after their siblings or their parents. They are able through theatre days to come to the theatre in an inclusive, safe environment and have fun and focus on themselves for a change.

"The second group is young, unaccompanied asylum seekers – who often come from very challenging war-torn areas around the globe. They are able to come to CFT and learn some new skills, socialise together and be in a safe place and crucially a place that allows them to be themselves.

"We have recently included both Syrian and Ukrainian refugees into our youth theatre. Chichester was recently named as the city in the UK that’s taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other. As a city and a theatre we are open-armed. We are welcoming people in times of need.”

He asked those who were able to support the work of the youth theatre to do so.

Everyone in Chichester should share in his pride. The youth theatre here is simply the best in class. We salute everyone involved, especially the young people themselves who have, through all their hard work, transformed not just their lives – but all of ours as well.