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Asthma drama takes the breath away

RUNNING ON EMPTY TAG theatre company touring central Scotland and the Borders until March 20

There are theatre companies who turn out shows for schools with the predictability of a Big Mac - and then there is TAG. In one of the most creative phases of their 30 years in the business, they go on surprising us with the range and audacity of their work. Just now, for example, the company is well into a seven-week tour of Running on Empty, a dance-drama on the subject of asthma.

Maybe not the first idea to come to mind for the 10 to 13 year age group, but wait: 9 per cent of Scottish children are asthmatics, a percentage that has doubled since TAG came into being. Two or three children in every class are likely to have school and social problems because of the illness - a matter of concern for their classmates and their teachers.

Add to this, as the TAG resource pack does, the health, scientific and environmental aspects of the ailment and you have a topic of some importance in the classroom. Of course, it still has to be made to work as theatre, which is where dancer Jane Howie intersects with the TAG design team.

Sharing her ideas with Tony Graham, and playing them out with Dawn Hartley and Ross Mackay on Soutra Gilmour's ingenious flattened pyramid, to a soundtrack composed by Quee MacArthur, Howie is visible proof of the drama's central message, that asthma sufferers can join in, and be winners. Jane herself is a life-long asthmatic.

Her vivid recollections and fierce conviction inflame the performance. "Dance-drama" is a phrase I generally regard as something of an oxymoron, but here it works like a charm. It tells the story, speaks the mind, and shows the heart with clarity and grace; it is acting made movement, it is mime but performed by dancers.

Cunningly, the three performers had awed the P6s and 7s before the play started, by doing imponderable things with their legs in the warm-up. From then on, the audience knew that for these performers everything was possible, whether it was running a relay race or having an out-of-body experience in the oxygen tent.

Their attentiveness was sharpened by drama worker Andy Manley's shrewd and value-free questioning, urging them towards their own feelings and understanding of the people and events.

The durable resource pack (supported by Scotia Pharmaceuticals) helps the teachers to explore the issues in intriguing ways, not least in the Blue Peter-style science work, with such experiments as how to measure the tar in a cigarette.

In her own words, Howie has "never allowed asthma to be a stumbling block in her life". It is a message of reassurance that TAG is bringing to hundreds of young people, and with it a more sympathetic understanding for a thousand more.

TAG's new address is 18 Albion Street, Glasgow G1, tel: 0141 552 4949

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