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The devil's tunes

Philippa Davidson listens to a community school opera.

It was really challenging," said one member of the cast. "The director was brilliant." "Exhausting," sighed another.

Students at the Littlehampton Community School in Sussex had just given up three weeks of their holiday to take part in a community opera, Race the Devil. The project, which culminated in three performances at the Arundel Arts Festival, involved a production and design team from Glyndebourne Education and clients from the West Sussex Probation Service.

Race the Devil, first staged last year in Crawley with a cast of probationers, was the inspiration of librettist Stephen Plaice, former writer in residence at HM prison, Lewes. The music, a blend of rock, ballad and African rhythms, was originally created in workshops run by the Glyndebourne team led by director Stephen Langridge. The central character is the legendary smuggler Micky Miles, Sussex's answer to Robin Hood. "I'm particularly interested in the history of smuggling," said Plaice. "The story about a man tempted by the devil seemed to be especially relevant to people on probation faced with the choice of going straight or re-offending."

In the new version, the devil is a drug dealer and the heroine a pregnant 16-year-old. Angels are Hells Angels and the action takes place on a precarious but effective set made entirely from scrap metal. Plaice explained that modifications had to be made to the piece, for example, to include parts for girls. "As it was originally devised for probationers, we were worried that the themes would not be as relevant to the students. In fact, there was no problem although they were more interested in the relationships than in the drugs. "

The Arundel Festival's chairman Judith Buckland said she had been looking for a suitable event for Littlehampton for some time. She hoped the association with Glyndebourne would continue and felt the use of the Micky Miles legend, which many young people would not know, would help to foster a sense of local identity.

Carol Davies is head of performing arts at Littlehampton School. The students follow a theatre studies course in years 12 and 13 and some hope to make a career in the theatre. "They have worked like professionals," she said. "It's not the same as a school play. They can't take three weeks to learn lines or just take time off when they feel like it."

The project improved students' social skills and concentration. It had also been helpful to be able to borrow the professional equipment, for example, the lights that were used in the recent television production of Don Giovanni. Director Stephen Langridge feels that community opera benefits both performers and production team. "Of course it's more difficult to work with people who have to be guided all the way but that's where the buzz comes from. I love it."

Four probationers from the original cast took part and community service volunteers helped with scene shifting, painting and carpentry. Jane Element, senior probation officer with West Sussex Probation Service, explained that the men were chosen either because they had an interest in performing or a skill to contribute. Some simply wanted to join in because they had time on their hands or were lonely. "Taking part in a production can be a tremendous experience for boosting confidence or increasing self esteem." Contact with the pupils from Littlehampton had also been valuable. Talking to an A-level student, for example, a probationer might realise the value of education.

Students also learned tolerance towards people from different backgrounds. Carol Davies said that when everyone was working together it was not easy to identify who was a student, probationer or professional. "Everyone was just doing their job."

* For Glyndebourne Education telephone Katy Tearle or Tessa Chisholm on 01273 812321.

* The London Schools Symphony Orchestra joins the Allegri String Quartet to present the world premiere of Derek Bourgeois' Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra at the Barbican Hall on September 19. The concert, conducted by Christopher Adey, also includes Walton's Johannesburg Festival Overture and Franck's Symphony in D Minor. Tickets: 0171 638 8891.

* Opera Factory begin a special touring education programme on Monday when there will be a day of workshops for young people aged 13 to 16 from three Oxfordshire schools. Led by composer Andrew Toovey and choreographer Isabel Mortimer, the workshops give an insight into the themes and structures of Dido and Aeneas and Curlew River and take place at the Old Fire Station, Oxford. For more about Opera Factory's education programme contact Sarah Gibbon on 0171 378 1029.

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