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Reva Klein and Carole Woddis sample a showcase of the best of youth theatre

Amid the flashing lights, stand-up compres and big name actors presenting awards to kids who had never heard of most of them, BT National Connections took over National Theatre stages for six evenings recently to showcase some of the best youth theatre to be found anywhere on these isles.

The fanfare was appropriate considering the blood, sweat, tears and Pounds 400,000 sponsorship that was poured into the event. This year's Connections was two years in the making, starting with the commissioning of 12 established writers, some of them award-winners, to write short plays for up to 50 performers aged 11 to 19.

Ten regional theatres worked with more than 160 youth theatres on productions of the plays, each of which was assessed by representatives from the National. Three quarters were presented in regional showcases. Next, a panel of judges had the difficult task of selecting one production of each play. The climax was the showcase, just ended, at the National Theatre, where audiences saw an incredibly varied programme delivered with fantastic energy, commitment and style.

Cannily chosen to open the showcase was the Isle of Skye Youth Theatre's production of Cuba by Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead. Of the four plays I saw, this one most happily fitted the brief of appealing to young people and challenging them at the same time.

Lochhead's ingredients of social realism and fantasy, humour and poignancy, poeticism and vernacular meant that the cast of 20, including a chorus, were stretched to the limit. They met the challenge with a panache that belied the fact that until director Colin Bradie decided to enter BT National Connections, the Isle of Skye Youth Theatre did not exist.

The tale of two schoolfriends' experience of the Cuban missile crisis, narrated by one of the girls as an adult looking back, was a hilariously resonant evocation of an early 1960s Scotland dominated by American culture and politics which led it, briefly, to the brink of extinction.

The Chrysalids made the opening night a Scots double bill. Adapted from John Wyndham's novel by Glaswegian David Harrower, it was performed by Hazlegrove Drama Group of King's Bruton Junior School in Yeovil. These young children were nothing short of mesmerising in what was a difficult piece peppered with bursts of rather puffed up monologues. But the children's exuberance helped to overcome the stiltedness of the writing. Under the direction of Michael Pyke, the story of authoritarianism and intolerance in a post-nuclear holocaust society became an atmospheric ensemble piece.

Shelter by Simon Bent is a very different kind of play. Dudley College of Further Education chose this raw, edgy, surprisingly funny slice of life among the young homeless advisedly. It was as if it had been written specially for them, allowing the actors to bounce their aggression, anxiety, affection and pain off each other. This was not a typical youth theatrish in your face piece of social realism but a beautifully wrought production, directed by Lynn Miller, showing what the runaways had left behind juxtaposed with what they have come to.

RK Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's production of In the Sweat by Naomi Wallace and Bruce McLeod was as uncompromising as they come. The group of five older members of the youth theatre poured their souls into a tale of brutality, racism and alienation, in which two boys, a girl and a hostage security guard are thrown together in a derelict synagogue in Spitalfields. At the moment that the guard is about to be sexually humiliated, a 300-year-old rabbi appears, recounting the things he has seen in Spitalfields over the last three centuries and in so doing, holding a mirror up to what is happening then. It is a curious play, certainly not one that allows for the youth of its performers.

Which is something it has in common with Wole Soyinka's Travel Club and Boy Soldier and Sian Evans' Asleep Under the Dark Earth. Both Soyinka's discursive, static exploration of terror and brutality in the third world and Evans's mystical drama of love, class and paganism, performed by Montgomeryshire Youth Theatre, Welshpool, demanded a degree of maturity with material that refused to make concessions to its young participants. South London's New Peckham Varieties, performing the Soyinka play, certainly made a very fair stab at recreating a group of schoolchildren suddenly taken hostage by a patrol led by a 15-year-old.

But Soyinka who, to the utter delight of the cast and audience appeared at the end of the performance, was the first to tacitly admit the play's shortcomings and particularly the inappropriately gauged tone of the discourse.

All the same, you can't deny the importance of what the young performers gained from Soyinka's world picture. Nor what any of the young people derived from working on their productions. In the end, the question is one that has always dogged youth theatre and will forever more: is it the play that's the thing, or is it everything leading up to it?

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