Earth, 2002, and children rule the stage

Gang warfare, genetic modification and - for light relief - exams: all are on the bill in the youth drama festival season, reports Heather Neill

International Connections

National Theatre

Young Vic Schools Festival

Young Vic Theatre

An alien arriving on Earth armed with an instrument for locating young theatrical talent would be inexorably drawn to south London this week. The National and Young Vic Theatre stages are playing host to shows, many of them new works, performed by hundreds of actors under the age of 19.

The National Theatre's International Connections festival, now in its 10th year, has provided 150 companies - schools, youth clubs and drama groups - all over the UK, in Canada, the United States, Finland, Italy and Cyprus, with 11 specially commissioned plays by well-known writers. The Young Vic focuses on its immediate vicinity, the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, and is inviting 150 young people from 12 schools, half of them primaries, to perform over three evenings. They will present either devised work or versions of well-known texts and stories.

The National's festivals began in 1992 with the intention of filling a gap; Suzy Graham-Adriani and the rest of the NT education department realised there were too few high-quality plays for young actors. Since then, four volumes of collected plays have been published by Faber and Methuen. This year's crop includes the hilarious The Exam, by Andy Hamilton (a scriptwriter for Drop the Dead Donkey in a previous life) about three 16-year-olds coping with a familiar rite of passage as well as disastrous parenting, incompetent teaching and an evil genius of an examiner. Forty companies have chosen this play to perform at regional festivals.

In contrast, Bryony Lavery's Illyria follows Maria, a young reporter on a dangerous assignment in an imaginary place in the grip of civil war. Gold, by Timothy Mason, is a musical - the first one in Connections history - set in Nazi-occupied Norway, with music by Mel Marvin, in which young Norwegians make a heroic effort to save the country's bullion reserves from the enemy. Kay Adshead's Lady Chill, Lady Wad, Lady Lurve, Lady God presents a sassy if chilling picture of gang warfare enlivened with rap, while The Actor, by Horton Foote, is the story of 15-year-old would-be thespian Horace, his family and their small town in 1930s Depression Texas.

Scottish writer Jackie Kay's Take Away is a variation on the Pied Piper story where the evil is the cult of onion "which really makes you cry". The other five plays are Christian Martin's Starstone, translated from German by Penny Black, about travelling players in 17th-century Germany; The Bear Table, by Julian Garner, about urban youths pitched against nature; Nuts by Fausto Paravidino, translated by Luca Scarlini, an episodic comedy that raises major questions about globalisation and morality seen through the eyes of teenagers; Olive, by Tamsin Oglesby, about a girl who runs away from an abusive home; and Judy Upton's Team Spirit, which poses its sporting heroine a moral question - to fulfil her sponsorship contract or come to the aid of another yachtsman.

Given this cornucopia, how did the participants in the regions (from which one production of each play is coming to the Cottesloe or Lyttelton stages this week) decide which to perform? Alistair Hunter of Behind the Scenes Youth Theatre, from a disadvantaged area of central Fife, had no doubts. "The Exam was the funniest play I'd ever read. It's true to life: I saw some of my own upbringing in it and the realities for today's young people. There's been a change in the pressures they have to cope with." At 23, Alistair is a veteran of two previous Connections regional festivals. He was an actor then; now he is directing, and his production is travelling to London. He and 15 young people aged 13 to 17 in the company will be cheered on by some of the 120 members who didn't get a part this time.

All the participants in regional festivals (held in 13 partner theatres from the Theatre Royal Plymouth to Theatr Clwyd in Mold) received professional advice if they wanted it - many directors spoke to their writers and sometimes even negotiated script changes - and all the directors benefited from a retreat weekend in Keswick run by NT Education.

The Young Vic offers similar support on a smaller scale. Each school has received at least one visit from festival director Tom Wright and company stage manager Jules Evans and all the groups have spent time familiarising themselves with the theatre's space and technical facilities. They have been inspired to take on an impressive variety of plays from Perseus and Medusa (Charles Dickens primary) to a slice of The Lord of the Rings (Lilian Baylis school).

Bacon's College in Southwark is already on friendly terms with the Young Vic. Head of drama Charlie Wegner can't praise too highly the opportunities provided by this relationship and the leadership of Sue Emmas, artistic associate in charge of education. One of his team, Louise Dryden, has been working with a mixed group from Years 7 to 10 on a piece about genetic modification. It is an ambitious project, but judging by rehearsals some weeks before the festival, the cast has a strong grip on the subject matter, some innovative ideas (including a DNA dance with coloured T-shirts and red, blue, green and yellow ribbons) and the ability to hold character in challenging circumstances.

Nirali Patel, 11, found herself eye to eye with visitors in the drama room and didn't waver from her role as a protester. The piece doesn't take an easy line; all the participants say they have been made to think, but they have arrived at a range of conclusions about such big questions as human cloning. That alien bleeper must be working overtime.

International Connections runs until July 16, when Behind the Scenes will perform. Tickets: 020 7452 3000. Education information: 020 7452 3333. 'International Connections: new plays for young people' is a full collection of this year's scripts, published by Faber, pound;16.99, available from the National Theatre Bookshop and online from www.nationaltheatre.org. ukbookshop and from other good bookshops. Young Vic Schools Festival, sponsored by Barclays, ends tonight (6.30pm) when Bacon's College's RU Coded will be one of four plays performed. Information: 020 7633 0133

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