Turning up the pilot light of theatrical love

Jo Bennington at the Kings Theatre  where she runs the youth theatre
Jo Bennington at the Kings Theatre where she runs the youth theatre
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It was a quirk of fate which convinced Jo Bennington she should make her life in Portsmouth – a chance meeting on the street with a bunch of uniformed sailors.

A decade on, and with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in Syria and the West Bank high in our consciousness, her respect for the armed forces – the common soldier, sailor and airman – has gone full circle.

It has manifested itself in an ambitious production of Oh! What a Lovely War, the bitter/sweet and highly ironic musical about the slaughter in the trenches which erupted 100 years ago and changed the world.

Ambitious because the production about the horrors of the First World War is being tackled for the first time by Portsmouth teenagers, senior members of her youth theatre company at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.

It is a group which, since its launch four years ago, is now full, with 60 youngsters gaining a love for theatre in all its forms and Jo is in the enviable position of having a waiting list.

But none of it would have happened if 30-year-old Jo had not bumped into that group of sailors.

She says: ‘I grew up in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk – a tiny town then where everybody knew everybody else and I was desperate to get out.

‘I was accepted at four universities. I did the usual tour of them and Portsmouth was last on the list. When I visited the other three it was always grey, miserable and drizzly.

‘But when I walked out of Portsmouth and Southsea railway station it was bright and sunny and those were the days when Guildhall Walk was coloured yellow, pink and blue.

‘I knew immediately this was the place for me and all it needed was for a bunch of men in uniform to walk round the corner and it would have been perfect. And guess what, that’s exactly what happened. It was perfect,’ she laughs. ‘Nowadays I know that it’s pretty rare to see sailors in uniform on the streets.’

She met her husband at the University of Portsmouth, married here and launched the Kings Youth Theatre. ‘This is my home now and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.’

She read English and Creative Arts – dance, music and drama – and graduated in 2006. But while she was there she spotted an advert in which the Kings wanted volunteer usherettes and bar staff.

‘It was the perfect fit. I thought that if I was doing a creative arts course I really needed to be in a creative arts environment and as soon as I walked into the Kings I knew it was where I wanted to work.’

She arrived at the historic Albert Road playhouse just as it was beginning to find its feet again having almost been lost to the city and converted into a themed pub.

‘It was finding its way back into the light again, starting off with small, one-night shows. Then, in my first year here we brought in Beauty and the Beast – a glitzy and glamorous show and I fell in love with the place and felt I was truly a part of something which was going places again.

Jo has always loved performing even though her career path has kept her on the darker side of the footlights.

‘From the age of four I was into ballet and tap, singing in choirs and acting on stage. If there was a spotlight, I wanted to be in it,’ she adds.

Jo knew she wanted a full-time job at the Kings and when, in 2008, she heard that long-standing bookings manager and public relations queen Sandra Smith needed an assistant, she applied and won the job.

Part of the role meant looking after hordes of children filling the old theatre for special performances of the annual pantomime.

‘I remember sticking my head into the auditorium during one of those shows when the whole place was full. I saw all these beaming faces of children who were having just the most amazing time.

‘There were 1,000 children in this glorious auditorium who were entranced and who were, potentially, falling in love with the theatre and who might come back in the future.

‘That was the moment I knew I wanted to take it further and build up a youth theatre at the Kings.’

Meanwhile, Jo, who thrives on hard work and six-day weeks had taken on another job – running the city council-backed City Youth Theatre which was based in the Third Floor Arts Centre of the Central Library.

‘I did that for three years in tandem with my day job at the Kings, but eventually the funding dried up and it folded. That’s when David Cooper, the Kings’s chief executive, approached me to run the Kings Youth Theatre.’

She started with 14 youngsters and has now built it up into the 60-strong company of today – two age groups, seven to 12-year-olds and her seniors who span the 12-17 age range.

‘Yes, it means I work six days a week, but I’m lucky.

‘I love my job and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s hard graft, but it is so worthwhile.

‘When the kids do something that has worked well you see that sparkle of enthusiasm and excitement in their eyes and when they say ‘‘please Miss, that was brilliant. Can we do it again?’’,that’s the best feeling in the world.’

Jo continues: ‘Of course, not all of them are going to make it as performers.

‘Some could go into stage management or become wardrobe mistresses.

‘It doesn’t matter because if they still have that little pilot light of love for the theatre inside them that’s the main thing.

‘My job is to turn up the gas inside them.’

The Kings Youth Theatre puts on one main production a year and when it came to choosing one for 2014, Jo Bennington knew it had to be something which would encompass the centenary of the start of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The dark musical Oh! What a Lovely War, which left London audiences shell-shocked when it opened in 1963, was an obvious if not difficult choice.

Jo says: ‘War at the moment – those in Iraq and Afghanistan – is so far removed from young people today. The concept of young men not much older than they are fighting on front lines is somewhat detached from them.

‘I thought it would be an important piece for these young minds to grapple with – to understand the value of a human life, understand sacrifice and how it affected the women left behind.’

There are several numbers in the show which have brought home to the young performers the horrors of the First World War.

Jo adds: ‘There’s a line in one of the songs which talks about men ‘‘going under’’.

‘The children asked me what it meant and when I explained that thousands of men drowned in the mud and no-one would stop to help, you could see the horror in their faces.

‘Or the scene in which two women talk about melting down bodies to create glycerin which was used to combat chlorine gas attacks, they say: ‘‘What, they actually did that Miss? Didn’t they have any respect for the dead? That’s sick’’.

‘And then there’s the bit when a cricket scoreboard clocks up the score: 50,000 men dead, zero yards achieved. All those lives for nothing...’

The Kings Youth Theatre has combined with Victoryland Theatre School for the production of Oh! What a Lovely War at the Kings Theatre, Southsea. Performances are on Friday, July 18 at 7.30pm and Saturday, July 19 at 2.30pm.