Stars including Sir Ian McKellen, Timothy Spall, Diana Quick, Paula Wilcox, Bruce Payne, Jonathan Wrather, newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams were on hand this afternoon to launch the National Youth Theatre’s 50th anniversary programme.

Currently in Birmingham with the stage version of their hit TV sketch show, Lucas and Walliams lent their support via live video link. Little Britain would not exist without the NYT, said Walliams, as the two comedians met in 1990 while members.

After the presentation of the anniversary programme by NYT artistic directors Paul Roseby and John Hoggarth – which will include several major new productions, a mammoth “playathon”, “God Save the Teen”-themed flash mob spectacles across the country and specially commissioned new writing from contemporary dramatists including Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Samuel Adamson and Stella Duffy – nearly 100 current and former NYT members took to the stage for a massive group photo. Other high-profile names who gave their backing in a special birthday film were actors Jeremy Irons, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael York and Con O'Neill.

Over the next six months, the NYT programme will include:

  • 20 to 22 April at the Lowry, Manchester: In this latest Theatre Makers course, established writers and directors work with young writers to develop their skills and have a chance to see their work performed. Fifteen-year-old playwrights Joshua Hanlon and Katie Boyd will have their plays, Final Farewell and The Corruption of a Lovely Thing will have their work showcased.

  • 26 May to 4 June at NYT’s London headquarters in Holloway Road: The Playathon is believed to be the largest play reading ever undertaken. Starting at 2.00pm on Friday 26 May with Henry V - the first NYT production, directed by founder Michael Croft in 1956 – the reading will cover ever play performed since by the NYT (270+), taking the form of a continuous relay on a 24-hour basis moving from one play to the next in chronological order until the most recent this year. Current and former members are invited to take part and solicit sponsorship for fundraising.

  • 26 to 29 July at the Royal Court: The NYT returns to the Royal Court, as part of the Sloane Square landmark’s own year-long 50th anniversary programme (See News, 11 Oct 2005), with its revival of Christopher Hampton’s Savages.

  • 12 August to 2 September at Soho Theatre: Sextet features premieres of six plays by six writers celebrating the “lost tribes and iconic moments” from the six decades of the NYT’s existence – Lenkiewicz (1950s), Al Smith (1960s), Barrie Keefe (1970s), Amy Evans (1980s), Adamson (1990s) and Duffy (2000s).

  • 10 September in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere: Fifty years to the day after the first NYT performance, members will recruit local young people from Glasgow to Brighton to take part in flash mob spectacles in various shopping centres, parks, stadiums and other public places across the country. The largest event, in Trafalgar Square, will involve 2,000 young actors aided by celebrities and pyrotechnics. Speaking today, artistic director Paul Roseby said the event was not just about NYT: “It’s really about 50 years of youth teen culture.” He promised that it would be “very anarchic…. a fantastic spectacle of teenage angst and hormones”, adding “it will be legal but only just”.

  • 19 to 23 September at Hackney Empire: To mark the NYT’s first-ever production, Croft’s staging of Henry V at Toynbee Hall, a new NYT version of the history play will be mounted along with a second Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, both of which are being newly abridged by Arnold Wesker.

    The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain was founded in 1956 by Michael Croft, the company's director until his death in 1986. The company initially played in the East End of London but proved so successful that young people began applying to join it from all over the country. In 1960 the Youth Theatre was given national status and financial support by the Department for Education. Since its foundation, NYT has performed over 270 productions in over 50 cities in eight countries and involved over 120,000 young people (aged between 13 and 21) in the UK. During this anniversary year, it aims to work with 24,000 young people across its range of activities and give over 200 performances of 64 productions in 82 venues.

    Speaking at today’s launch event, Paul Roseby also encouraged people to donate money to help fund NYT’s ongoing programme. He reminded the audience: “We are a charity. We just don’t talk about death and destruction, we talk about life and opportunity.”

    - by Terri Paddock