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Michael Coveney: Ringing the changes at Central and Roehampton

The Central School of Speech and Drama has acquired 'Royal' status

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Central School of Speech and Drama
© Patrick Baldwin

At a breakfast briefing in the Savile Club on Friday morning, Gavin Henderson, principal of the Central School of Speech and Drama, revealed that there were now 100 applicants for each available training place, an indication of how the school has regained its reputation at the top of the tree after a long period in the dumps.

Actually, make that "Royal" Central School - the Swiss Cottage forcing house acquired the regal moniker a year ago, no doubt because it helps in raising money and attracting the 20 per cent of foreign students they need to boost the income against people on grants and bursaries. Gavin also said that, as the patron had always been Princess Alexandra, and the school had once been housed in the Royal Albert Hall, they were entitled; and now London had two "royal" music colleges and two drama.

He also proudly listed recent graduates, as he had done a week ago at the Critics' Circle Centenary conference in Central: not only critic Matt Trueman, but also David Jubb of BAC, Neil McPherson of the Finborough, the creative personnel behind Shunt and Blind Summit, playwrights Nick Payne and Jessica Swale, and Cush Jumbo, whose performance as Josephine Baker everyone is still talking about; even I'm talking about it, and I never saw it.

The current president of Central is another well-known graduate, Michael Grandage, and he said how easy it was to cast some of the recent Central intake without even knowing they had attended the school; they simply stood out in auditions and this was corroborated by the Really Useful Group's casting director David Grindrod who nudged me to point out that the two unknown leads in two new musicals - Denis Grindel as Jimmy Rabbitte in The Commitments, and Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice-Davies in Stephen Ward - were both fresh out of Central.

We were sitting on the "Olivier" table - each table was named for a graduate of the school more renowned than any of the above: Redgrave, Wanamaker, Mackintosh, Pinter and Ackland (Joss and Rodney) - along with Jeanette Nelson, voice coach at the NT, air-kissing across the room to such industry stalwarts as publisher Nick Hern, actor Nickolas Grace, publicist Meg Dobson, you get the picture.

Nick Hern, incidentally, is currently featured big time on WhatsOnStage as he celebrates 25 years of Nick Hern Books with edited highlights of My First Play, his anthology of contributors over the years. I've had three books published by Nick - my history of the Glasgow Citizens; a detailed, polemical diary of one particular year in the theatre, The Aisle is Full of Noises, which I often think of as the template for this blog; and my critical biography of Ken Campbell.

His presence at the breakfast indicated his status on the inside of the profession - everyone outside knows he's renowned as one of the best editors of anything in the country - as one of NHB's specialities is their "how to" strand of books written by professional actors, directors and playwrights. There are no visible signs of him slowing down as the company - a lean machine of just nine people - slides smoothly into a new era under the editorial control of Matt Applewhite, an already highly experienced member of the team.

I didn't ask Nick if he's planning to publish a history of the drama schools, but it would make a fascinating read. The range of courses now offered by Central - and the other major London schools, which are RADA, LAMDA and the Guildhall School - reflect the rapid changes in, for instance, design and technology over the past twenty years. Musical theatre is back on the agenda, too, and there are specialist post-graduate courses, which are training courses, not academic opportunities.

That academic kind of theatre course - in theatre history, performance studies, even criticism - is available at such institutions as Royal Holloway College, affiliated to London University, and Roehampton University south of the river towards Putney.

As it happens, I paid two visits to the latter campus last week to talk to third year students on Susan Painter's excellent theatre criticism course. What is interesting now is not so much what job criticism has done in the past as what job it might do - if any - in the future, with the decline of the print industry, the coming of the internet and the new blogosphere.

Whatever happens, I always say two things, which never change: you must see everything, or as much as you can; and you must write about everything, wherever and whenever you can. There are no short cuts or substitutes for that, and no criticism anywhere is worth a candle unless it's well written and seething with passion, commitment and fury.