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New on the scene

If it's December, it must be drama. David Hornbrook marks the National Year of Reading's month of drama with a round-up of new plays.

LOOKING FOR THE MOON: plays for key stage 3. By Paul Francis. Cambridge University Press. Pounds 4.50.

Looking for the Moon, the play from which this collection takes its name,is set in eighth-century China. It has a large cast, and tells the story of the poet Li Bai, who is appointed to, and then banished from court. He turns to drink, and drowns chasing the moon's reflection in a lake. The simple honesty of the poet dreamer is contrasted with the machinations of the royal court in an unadorned narrative style that is powerful and moving.

The remaining five plays are short slices of contemporary life. A building society, a newsagent's and a careers office are some of the settings. Unselfconsciously multicultural in their casting, the scripts offer opportunities for discussion around themes likely to be of concern to key stage 3 pupils - family break-up, the first job, the future. They would also make manageable projects for small groups to prepare and perform in the drama class.

The collection offers English and drama teachers a lively choice of styles and content. The writing is concise and witty, and supporting notes suggest ways of approaching the scripts.

YOUNG BLOOD. Edited by Sally Goldsworthy. Aurora Metro Press. Pounds 9. 95.

This is a good-value package of plays for performance by young people of secondary age and above. Eschewing teachers' notes, Sally Goldsworthy has concentrated on assembling an eclectic collection of scripts. Some of her choices - Darker the Berry by J B Rose (pictured right), a Windrush generation patois comedy set in Jamaica, or Marcus Romer's telling drama about young people and drugs, Out of their Heads - tackle contemporary issues. Others approach young people's experience more obliquely. Sheila Yeger's Geraniums traces the complex loyalties of a Jewish family caught up in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, while Charles Way's award-winning The Search for Odysseus sees gods and heroes making real and moral journeys in a powerful rendering of the ancient story with contemporary resonances. Finally, as its title suggests, The Girl Who Fell Through Her Jumper takes its protagonist out of reality altogether and tumbles her into a fantastical looking-glass world adventure.

THE BEST OF THE FEST: a collection of new plays. Edited by Phil Setren. Aurora Metro Press. Pounds 12.99.

Teachers of A-level drama and vocational courses in the performing arts should find this a useful collection of adult plays. Drawn from 10 years of the London New Play Festival, the six plays present a rich tapestry of contemporary issues interwoven with eternal themes such as love, illness, sex and the power of the unknown. A good dip for post-16 students on the trail of short, well-written, small cast pieces with relevance to their lives.

ON THE TONGUE OF A BIRD: the story of Branwen. By the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre and Dance Company. Pont Books. Pounds 4.50.

A rich Celtic yarn inspired by a poem by Gillian Clarke, On the Tongue of a Bird resounds with the politics and violent drama of ancient Britain. Branwen, young and beautiful sister of the heroic Bran of Wales, is married to the old and weak King of Ireland, and the tribal rivalries that ensue form the substance of the story. Welsh speakers will enjoy the bilingual elements of the play and there is much dancing and singing. Originally performed in the open air, the play invites imaginative staging andwould be an exciting dramatic project for any large cast.

THE GIRL WHO WISHED. By Peggy Bennette-Hume. New Millennium. Pounds 5. 95.

Gwen is black but dreams of being white. A fairground clown makes her dream come true but, alienated from friends and family, who no longer recognise her, she soon realises her foolishness. Fortunately the magician is at hand to put things back as they were and, hey presto, all ends happily. A short, simple modern fable with a small cast - its origins lie in theatre in education - for upper primary or Year 7 pupils. The Girl Who Wished offers a fertile stimulus for discussion of racial prejudice and other equal opportunities issues .

ONLY ONCE: a play for young actors. By Aidan Chambers. Line by Line Pounds 6.99.

How nice to have an experienced young people's playwright such as Aidan Chambers on hand to tailor-make a script for your A-level theatre studies class. In Only Once, the performers (seven female and one male) play the inmates of a shelter, all of whom are recovering from trauma and abuse. The writing is rich and taut and the relationships develop subtly. With characters complex enough for actors to get their teeth into, Chambers's play presents a rewarding challenge to any sixth-form or FE drama group.

TWO PLAYS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE: Fairytaleheart and Sparkleshark. By Philip Ridley. Faber. Pounds 6.99.

Philip Ridley's teenagers use imagination and poetic narrative with dazzling effect against the crudity, squalor and routine, shoulder-shrugging violence of their inner-city environment.

Painted butterflies and candlelight illuminate a beaten-up community centre as Fairytaleheart establishes the backdrop against which two 15-year-olds weave the dream tale that rescues them.

In Sparkleshark, six adolescents on a tower-block roof find their attitudes changed when they enter the make-believe world of a despised "geek". A stirring affirmation of art's power to transform.

David Hornbrook is arts inspector for the London Borough of Camdenl The National Year of Reading Web site will carry a feature on drama in December:

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