Exam success of glam-rock scribe

He may not be a household name but one youth theatre playwright has found fame of sorts. Adi Bloom reports.

Alan Ayckbourn. John Godber. And Mr Wheeller.

The pantheon of popular playwrights includes a series of household names.

Mark Wheeller, head of drama at Oaklands community school in Southampton, is not one of them.

Yet, the 48-year-old's work has been cited by Edexcel examiners, alongside renowned playwrights Alan Ayckbourn, John Godber and David Campton, as the most regularly performed by GCSE drama students.

His best-known play, Too Much Punch For Judy, has been staged 4,765 times since 1988. Chicken, written in 1992, has been performed 4,519 times.

"Most plays put on at school are written for adults, and then performed by kids," Mr Wheeller said. "But I'm a drama teacher. I write for the kids. I use tricks that drama teachers like. And I do things that are cheap. I come up with imaginative, stylistic ways to stage themes."

While many publishers and playwrights assume that school plays will be ensemble pieces, Mr Wheeller knows that GCSE classes generally perform in groups of five or six.

He is also aware that the most talented actors in a class might not necessarily be the best singers, so he provides distinct roles for both.

Nonetheless, Mr Wheeller's plays are consistently rejected by mainstream publishers, who claim that their plot and character development are not sufficiently well-honed.

Too Much Punch For Judy, a docudrama piece about the dangers of drink-driving, has yet to be performed by a professional theatre company.

"I can do things at school that won't necessarily be a commercial success,"

Mr Wheeller said. "Mums and dads come to see it anyway."

But, while his fame is confined to drama departments ("You'd shock me if you came across a literature teacher who'd heard of me"), it is also international: pupils in New Zealand and Australia regularly stage Too Much Punch For Judy.

Sixteen-year-old Anthony Jennings, who has just finished studying GCSE drama with Mr Wheeller, is baffled by his teacher's fame.

"It never occurred to me to ask for his autograph," he said. "We just don't think of him in that way. It's quite scary that he's so popular.

"I'm like someone in the middle of Africa who meets David Beckham. I see him as a person, not as a celebrity."

This month, Anthony takes the lead role in Sequinned Suits and Platform Boots, Mr Wheeller's tribute to the glam-rock era, at the Edinburgh festival.

Mr Wheeller would one day like to see his plays on a bigger stage. But, he insists, he does not expect to rival Ayckbourn or Godber outside the GCSE curriculum.

"Alan Ayckbourn is a proper playwright. I'm someone who writes plays. I tinker, mainly.

"I'd just like to have my plays performed by adults. That's an achievable ambition.

"But youth theatre is my job, my addiction. I want to try out my plays on youngsters first. "

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

Sequinned Suits and Platform Boots is being performed at the Edinburgh festival fringe from August 14 to 19

Greasepaint: members of Oaklands youth theatre, Southampton, rehearse Sequinned Suits and Platform Boots, by drama teacher Mark Wheeller which they will take to the Edinburgh Festival

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