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Cheap for what they do

Some people say the playwright is the most important individual in the theatre, but I say it is the actor. When it comes to it, he or she is the one who has to go out there and say the words, be the person."

TAG director James Brining is talking after a performance of Stroma, and it is impossible to disagree with him on an afternoon when TAG has rejected the theatre seating in Knightswood (Glasgow) drama studio to crowd the initially sceptical fourth and fifth year audience round its touring stage, well within touching distance of the three actors.

You feel it is deliberate, as though the company wants to confront the young spectators with the truthfulness, the almost palpable street cred of its production. Indeed, the whole performance vibrates with the kind of authenticity that does not come easily or cheaply.

In this case it is the result of 18 months of "research and development", paid for by a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, which enabled the director, writer and cast to visit Polmont Young Offenders Institution and work with members of drug, alcohol and rehabilitation groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

There they improvised scenes and encounters around homelessness, child abuse and drug addiction with the young people, investigating the experiences, attitudes and idioms that would later inform the play. You can imagine that this process was more than useful to TAG's chosen playwright, Michele Celeste, a softly-spoken, middle-aged Italian with no claim whatever to "parliamo Glasgow" but otherwise amply qualified for the task with a string of theatre credits to his name, including first prize in the W H Smith Plays for Children awards.

He is not slow to claim that some of the remarks made by these focus groups found their way into his script verbatim - certainly one line from Polmont - and he claims that "hundreds of people" contributed in one way or another to the final text. It makes for resonating dialogue, and perhaps another of the side-effects of distillig and compressing all this material into a single narrative and three characters is that the three homeless young people are crowded with the disordered and contradictory impulses of confused ado-lescents, a richness of character-isation that is meat and drink to the actors.

The company sets out to produce a play about runaways, homelessness, and the dangers of living on the streets, and the Teachers' Resource Pack includes a handful of leaflets from childcare organisations, but you get the feeling that the complexity of the characters (and the author's flair for metaphor) have taken over. There is the occasional gesture to "guidance" in the script but above all the play creates a moving and painful account of young people struggling to understand the downside of being human.

Brining recognises this. "It's about friendship, belonging, of discovering who you are," he says. "It's about our towns, and our country". Stroma, a rain, tide and wind-washed uninhabited island off the north-east coast, becomes a place of escape and cleansing for the runaways, and yearning for it tolls through Celeste's text, like Chekhov's Moscow.

After the demanding 80-minute performance, the actors return to help in Geraldine Williams's workshop, leading group discussions, and fascinating their now devoted audience by "hot-seating" (responding in-role to) their questions. The Knightswood students found that David Ireland, who had given two compelling performances in the play, was similarly irresistible under their interrogation.

"This is so valuable for them," drama teacher, Teri McIntosh, commented. "In Highers they have to study contemporary Scottish drama in production. They couldn't have anything better. TAG are so dependable. Perhaps it's because they never do the same thing twice, they're so fresh and exciting. And," (her eyes widen)," they don't cost much!"

Touring: schools, community groups and theatres in central and northern Scotland, until April.6, TAG, tel 0141 552 4949.

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