The National Youth Music Theatre comes to Manchester this week with their production of one of the best musicals of our time, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Representing the very best in work with young people through musical theatre and, for over 35 years, enabling thousands of youngsters across the UK to develop both their creative and personal potential, the National Youth Music Theatre has been described by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber as “the finest youth music theatre in the world”.
Set in the unique space of Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse this site specific production of West Side Story is directed by Nikolai Foster. Manchester’s Finest got the chance to speak to Nikolai in rehearsals of this exciting project to find out what audiences could look forward to.
MF: Lovely to meet you Nikolai, I know you have recently come from directing the anniversary tour of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing which has a cast of around 5. Taking on a cast of 40 In this latest production of ‘West Side Story’ is quite a dramatic move…
NF: I think I’m clinically insane, that’s the best way of describing my decision to take on such a large cast. When we set about the project we talked about a cast of 20 and doing it on a middle scale. Then, when we looked at the script and you see how many Jets and Sharks there are plus all the other characters, it was getting to around 30 to 35. You also have to bear in mind we have an incredible space like the Victoria Warehouse to perform the production in and to fill a space of that magnitude you need a large cast. When we auditioned back in January it was mind-blowing to see how much talent is out there so doing it on this scale with this number of people felt really right.
MF: How challenging has it been?
NF: It has been a massive challenge just in terms of staging a piece with that many people and also communicating and collaborating with actors when there’s a lot of people in the room at the same time. So yes, it has been a challenge but it has been a really enjoyable and life affirming challenge.
MF: How has it been staging the production in the Victoria Warehouse, which has more recently been used for product launches, film premieres and club nights?
NF: Well I’ve done installation type work before but I’ve never done site-specific work before and what I’ve realised is you have to try to make it a character within the play. Trying to turn the space into a theatre or trying to use things like scenery (which might be acceptable in a beautiful Opera House or Palace Theatre) just wouldn’t work in a space like the Victoria Warehouse.
You have to meet the space half way and create an environmental space where the story can take place in. We are not really using anything fake, so for example you will see the space is defined by fishing containers and the brickwork of the warehouse itself. Everything is very industrial, heavy and on a large scale.
MF: Does the fact you have an industrial surrounding mean you have updated the production and changed the period of the piece?
NF: No, we are absolutely keeping it set in 1956. If we were setting it in today’s times the story would be quite different as we have stabbings and shootings in this play which, in all honesty, would happen a lot sooner nowadays than they do in the play.
Sadly if the play was set today there wouldn’t even be a meeting to discuss a fight or a rumble, someone would stabbed in the street straight away or be shot. It’s important we can see how relevant the play is today but through the eyes of the time when it was written.
MF: The National Youth Music Theatre is made up of performers ranging from age 11 to 23. What is it like directing such a young cast?
NF: It’s quite overwhelming in many ways – you feel a sense of responsibility, as this is a very important part of these people’s lives. You hope that they will remember this in the future. NYMT was responsible for nurturing stars like Sheridan Smith, Jude Law and Matt Lucas – they have an incredible alumni who have gone on to do great things.
Whilst rehearsing West Side Story I’ve seen around 4 or 5 actors in the room who I think “you’re one of the most extraordinary young actors I’ve come across”. There’s some incredible raw talent here and I suppose the challenge is trying to harness it all and focus it in the right direction.
MF: You were born in Germany Nikolai but came to live in Yorkshire when you were a child-is it good to be back on Northern soil whilst you play at this Manchester venue?
NF: Well I grew up just outside of Leeds and used to come to Manchester all the time so every time I return to Manchester with productions it feels like a home from home. We chose the Victoria Warehouse- it wasn’t just a case of any warehouse in any city. We were looking at Leeds/Manchester and it just seemed a perfect fit. All these National companies you see are based in London and we were determined with this one we came out of London and started building relationships with other cities and other venues so the company can continue to grow.
WEST SIDE STORY
WEDNESDAY 21 – SATURDAY 24 AUGUST
Victoria Warehouse, Trafford Road, Manchester, M17 1AB
Wed – Sat @ 7.30pm, Fri & Sat @ 2.30pm
BOX OFFICE: 0161 660 7000