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Issues to get your teeth into

First Bite's new play deals with a dozen topics - and it only lasts 50 minutes. But, asks Brian Hayward, is the group trying too hard to please its customers?

In its own words, First Bite's 50-minute play for schools, Inside Out, explores "the themes of alcohol, smoking, illegal substance use, the link between alcohol and teenage pregnancy, attitudes towards the opposite sex, decision-making and negotiating skills".

This is a bit of an understatement. The play also deals with lesbianism, suicide, adultery, road safety and many other dramatic issues. In less than one hour, this theatre in education company delivers enough material for a whole year of personal and social development work - at a pace that makes EastEnders seem almost somnolent.

First Bite's whole performing style is geared towards issue raising. Each member of the company of four wears casual black, and they present their work on the floor of the school hall, with only a few boxes as props.

The play switches between the 13 characters, irrespective of gender, with no more ceremony than announcing the change of name.

In this way, First Bite gives us a couple of years in the lives of eight teenagers, three parents, a grandparent and a teacher, with the focus on those who are 13 going on 15. The style is fluid, not to say turbulent, but the spectator skills of our video generation are well able to cope with the fast-forward action and the constant character change.

The company says the performance can only be effective in the long-term if it is followed up by teachers. To this end, First Bite supplies a summary of the play's 34 scenes, and notes on the issues and questions raised by each of them, plus two lesson plans for follow-up workshops.

In an appendix, it lists over 40 organisations (in Liverpool and Edinburgh, the company's two bases) that offer further information and resources for "health" education, including those that helped devise this performance.

For Edinburgh, this singles out ASH, the Brook Advisory Centre, the Health Education Board and Youth Clubs Scotland.

The workshop plans are the focus of a change of educational policy. Originally the company carried out the workshops themselves; now, it says, "schools have neither the time nor the money."

As a result, the company usually works at one remove, giving workshop training to teachers on in-service days. First Bite clearly takes the "education" bit of TIE extremely seriously, but is it at the expense of the "theatre"?

It is a timely question: the Scottish Arts Council is publicly debating how schools and theatre groups should be brought closer together (see article above). Schools are the paymasters now and call the tune, but what happens if those that pay the piper have tin ears?

On its debut two years ago, First Bite had eye-catching theatricality; now the issues predominate, and flatten the spectacle. Then their physicality and sound-imaging was integral to their theatre; in this production it veers towards the decorative and jokey.

First Bite is a valuable force in the TIE world but, like other companies working in this area, it is in danger of trying too hard to please its customers.

There is a time to shut the door on educational advisers and let the theatre people do the work they know best. As Oscar Wilde once said, in matters of importance, style is everything.

* For information on in-service workshops, call First Bite, tel: 0131 225 7993

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