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After winning a place at theatre school that launched Adele, how Holly's set for West End stardom

By Stephanie Bell

A Co Armagh teen is set to fulfil her dream of stardom after appearing in a show at London's National Youth Music Theatre.

It's the career that many boys and girls across the world can only dream of, but one Ulster teenager has just taken a massive step closer to realising her ambition of becoming a bona fide West End star. For 15-year-old Holly McConville, from Craigavon, is the only young person from Northern Ireland to secure a summer spot in the prestigious National Youth Music Theatre in London, where just recently she was performing to packed audiences in the critically acclaimed show The Ragged Child.

oung people from all over the world auditioned for the once-in-a-lifetime chance, which is seen as a stepping stone for future stars of the stage and screen.

NYMT alumni include Jude Law, Tom Chambers, Amy Nuttall, Sheridan Smith, Adele, Jesse J and our own Niamh Perry. It's the road to stardom and one which Holly has been successfully treading since the tender age of five.

Proud parents Karen (46), a drama teacher, and Tommy (46), a civil servant, were among the audiences in both The Rose Theatre, Kingston and The Leys School, Cambridge over the past two weeks to witness their daughter's biggest moment.

The young starlet has graced the stages of all of Northern Ireland's top theatres, including the Grand Opera House, on many occasions since the age of 11.

In fact, it was at that very age that a top London director spotted her unique talent and urged her parents to bring her to London. A casting agent was happy to take young Holly on to his books but mum Karen felt she was just too young.

Those familiar with Holly's talent are not in the least surprised that she has made the leap across the water at such a young age, and Karen now concedes that Holly is so resolute that nothing will hold her back from her dream.

"We are so thrilled for her that she has had this great chance with the National Youth Music Theatre," says Karen, who also has a son Ben (11) and daughter Grace (6). "She is very determined and knows what she wants. From when she was no age she has said she wanted to be in the West End and Broadway.

"Being a drama teacher and an amateur actor myself I have worried about it as I know it is a world where there are disappointments but Holly has a fantastic attitude. She has had knockbacks, too, but she just puts her arm around whoever gets the role (at auditions) and wishes them well and that is another reason why I am so proud of her. I actually take it worse than she does. Getting a place in the National Youth Music Theatre has been just such an amazing opportunity for her."

Holly has been involved in the world of musical theatre since she joined her local drama group, MADS, in Craigavon at the age of five.

She gained the leading role of Annie in St Agnes Choral Society's wonderful production of the classic musical in the Grand Opera House, Belfast, in March 2012. The show was a resounding success, playing to full houses every night, and picked up three Association of Irish Musical Societies Awards.

Holly went on to appear in other shows in the Opera House and in other leading roles such as Aladdin in the Waterfront Hall with Belfast's own Music Theatre 4 Youth and as young Eponine in their production of Les Miserables in Belfast's Mac theatre. She also starred as The Artful Dodger in the Waterside Theatre in Londonderry.

Her exceptional talent was spotted by renowned writer and director Jeremy James Taylor, who is also a movie caster who worked on the film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp.

"After the show at the Waterfront, Jeremy spoke to me and told me he thought Holly was amazing and a very special talent," says Karen.

"At that stage he said we should bring her to London and there was a casting agent who wanted to take her on but she was just too young.

"Jeremy kept in touch and both he and Jenny Cooke, who founded Music Theatre 4 Youth, advised that she should audition for the National Youth Music Theatre in London.

"She had to go to London three weekends in a row for the auditions and when we heard she had been accepted we just screamed with delight."

The National Youth Music Theatre has enabled thousands of youngsters from across the UK to develop both their creative and personal potential – indeed, musical legend Andrew Lloyd Webber has described it as "the finest youth music theatre in the world".

Holly played multiple roles in The Ragged Child, starring alongside many young people who have already appeared in West End productions, including the star of smash hit Matilda, Hayley Canham.

And for her part, Holly has simply enjoyed the chance to live out her life's dream.

"When I am on stage I just feel like I can really be me, I absolutely love it," says the Lismore Comprehensive pupil. Being in London meant everything to me and I will hopefully learn a lot from the experience.

"My friends are all very supportive and they have been sending me messages on Facebook and texts wishing me good luck. I was a bit nervous but I was really looking forward to it.

"I couldn't imagine my life or my future without musical theatre and drama and it's my dream to go to drama school and star in the West End."

Living her dream, stage by stage

  • As well as appearing in the Waterfront Hall, the Grand Opera House, The Mac Theatre and the Waterside Theatre, Holly has been busy closer to home in Craigavon
  • She recently starred as Miss Honey in Matilda in a production by drama group, MADS
  • In June she took to the stage in Armagh's Marketplace Theatre in Welcome to the West End, an original Louise Fahey production in which she played Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • She also got through to the final of Portadown's Got Talent in July and was a favourite with the judges – television presenter Julian Simmons, model and actress Rachel Kennedy and Shane Lynch from Boyzone, who said "she has a bright future ahead of her"
  • Meanwhile, critics have described The Ragged Child as "nothing short of sensational"
  • It is a stark and moving account of child deprivation in London in the 1850s which won the coveted Edinburgh Fringe Festival Award, and focuses on the plight of the poor and destitute, mirrored in the tragic lives of Joe Cooper and his sister Annie
  • Lord Shaftesbury fights for the education of the illiterate poor in the House of Lords, and, from an inauspicious beginning, the 'Ragged Schools' are founded with Shaftesbury as president, but it is too late for Joe and Annie

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