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Blitz on the millennium

Ann FitzGerald watches children recapture the flavour of the Forties Throughout this month, Birmingham has been experiencing a mild outbreak of "forties fever", with plays, concerts and life-style events as the city (along with Cardiff and London) celebrates the Towards the Millennium Festival.

Nowhere is the fever more virulent than in the six schools in the eastern suburbs of the city where pupils in Years 6 and 10 are working with professional artists towards a joint public exhibition and performance which will encapsulate aspects of that troubled decade.

At Sir Wilfrid Martineau secondary school, a group of 14 and 15-year-olds are on their second session with actor Peter Wynne-Wilson, devising a play on the theme of the Holocaust. They have created a tightly structured plot, based on parallel scenes: a Jewish mother travelling on one of the death camp trains, intercut with the journey of her young son who is being smuggled out of Germany to England.

Now, working in groups they are devising individual scenes and already, despite some giggles of embarrassment, are giving surprisingly moving glimpses of the feelings which the separated mother and son experience.

Wynne-Wilson says: "Some of the boys are struggling a bit with the heavy emotion of the sort of piece they've chosen to do, but gradually, as we work together the characters and the story are beginning to take over."

At Hillstones junior and infants school, dancer Louise Glynne makes a similar comment: "The children were very inhibited at first, particularly the boys, feeling embarrassed at having to touch or respond emotionally to each other. " But towards the end of the first day's work they had obviously come a long way, and were using their whole bodies to express emotions such as sadness, bewilderment, anger, isolation as they explored the plight of young evacuees.

Evacuation is also the theme chosen by the 10 and 11-year-olds of Ros Shephard's class at Hallmoor special school. The children, who all have moderate learning difficulties, are working with puppeteer Caroline McDowell, creating shadow scenes for the Blitz, decorated masks - based on the wartime gas mask - and stick or string puppets for the lines of young evacuees waiting to be chosen by their foster families. "This has been a wonderful opportunity for us" says Ros Shephard. "It's very difficult for these children to retain factual information, but making the puppet play is helping to fix the events in their minds and at the same time explore feelings which many of them experience but can't articulate: isolation, rejection, fear of the new and unknown. "

There are no problems with abstract concepts at Gossey Lane junior and infants school where pupils are working with teacher Brian Parkinson and sculptor Anu Patel on contrasting aspects of war: destruction, regeneration; danger, safety; leaders, the led. This has produced some striking images from these top juniors which Anu Patel will help them to realise in three dimensions using a variety of materials.

Story-telling with photography, and creating a theatre production are other strands in the project, which has been set in motion by the city's recently appointed arts education co-ordinator, Pepita Hanna. She says: "In thinking how to use a grant of Pounds 5,000 from the Towards the Millennium Festival budget, I was concerned to give teachers a free rein to plan with their artists how best they could use this opportunity to fit in with their own work and the needs of their own classes".

The exhibition and performances arising from the project take place in the Central Library and Museum and Art Gallery on March 23. For invitations and other details contact Pepita Hanna: 021 428 1167.

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