As you will know if you read my last blog I wasn’t looking forward to Cat’s Paw Theatre’s visit to Rhyl High School. In late Victorian times Rhyl must have been an attractive and burgeoning resort. The train line had brought a new prosperity to the beautiful North Wales coast and its lovely beaches, with excursions out from Liverpool and Manchester, and here and there the place has a hint of what it might have been like. You have to look very carefully though because the twentieth century was not kind and the twenty-first has been cruel to Rhyl.
The place is desperately run down, it has one of the highest deprivation indexes in Wales and as I said last time it has the reputation as the drug capital of North Wales. Rhyl High is an observation not just an abbreviation! The sea front is a mixture of peeling, seedy hotels, guest houses and arcades and the town centre has a larger than average number of boarded shopfronts, bargain stores, and charity shops. The school itself was on special measures a few years ago when we last performed there and I was expecting a four hour battle for hearts and minds and was armed ready with all my teacher’s control tricks.
I arrived in plenty of time. Too early really so I popped into Sainsbury’s Café down the road for a coffee and a read. The great thing about Sainsbury’s café is the subsidised coffee and the free papers. I took the Times and found a couple of relevant blogworthy reports. The first was the news that only a quarter of the numbers of British ‘travellers’, or gypsies as we now can’t call them, actually travel anymore. As a fellow traveller, well anyway a traveller, this is a very interesting statistic, and I will devote an entire blog to it at some time in the future. The other article was an amusing tale from Wrexham, just down the road and where we perform regularly. The Poundland at Wrexham was due to close so the manager had a half price sale! Everything at 50p! The place was mobbed apparently (Wrexham is very poor too) and the place was almost stripped to the shelves in no time. It was so popular that when Head Office heard about it, they gave the store a reprieve and ordered the manager to go back to the original prices. The manager foolishly decided to do what he was told straight away and the result was revolution at the tills, with people dumping their baskets of 50p bargains, berating the unfortunate staff, swearing and angrily storming out, threatening retribution, revolution and revenge. The manager was forced to offer a BOGOF deal to pacify the seething citizens! Poverty, poverty, knock!
Anyway, back to Rhyl High. We set up in the school and stood by ready to repel borders. One of my longstanding teacher’s tricks with a group I am expecting to be difficult is to establish strong control right from the start of a session. It’s much much easier to relax discipline later if a group behaves itself than try to pull it back after a relaxed start. So I start with stern looks and tough clear speech, introducing the session and expecting excellent behaviour. Very quickly I realise that these 14 year olds from this terribly deprived area were paying rapt attention. After the brief introduction, there is a twenty minute theatre piece about the subject which, if you’ve read previous blogs, you will know is about rape and sexual consent. Not a murmur. You could hear a pin drop in the studio theatre. The core scenes of the story were very strong, the actors picking up and responding to the focused attention the story was receiving. And it went on in exactly the same vein for two hours. The young people’s questions and responses were respectful and intelligent. They demonstrated real emotional maturity when talking about the subject and using the words around the subject like ‘have sex’ without giggles and the usual Year 9 nudges and whispers. In short they were a fantastic audience. The feedback from them and the teachers (we ask them to complete written feedback forms) was excellent and they went away having learned much from the session. And I had learned much about Rhyl High School.
An entirely different response from the one we were expecting. And thinking now about the day, the school had a different atmosphere from the one I remember. Something had changed in the interim years. Something definitely for the better. Probably a new Head, definitely a newly committed staff.
So despite the current citizens of Rhyl being what they are now, I feel the future ones, anyway those we met there yesterday, might have a bit of a chance to make a difference and turn the town’s fortunes and future around. There's a touch of high class about Rhyl High. Good luck to them! They deserve to succeed.
All the best from a road near you,