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Nifty footwork in Depression shuffle

The National Youth Theatre, celebrating its 40th birthday with a searing production of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? began life with a school play: Henry V, directed by Michael Croft, a charismatic drama teacher from Alleyn's Boys' School. Under Croft's successor Edward Wilson, the company has developed an "education by practice" philosophy, with seven induction courses for its yearly intake of 200 talented 14 to 21-year-olds.

"While we're primarily a performance company, our productions are the tip of the iceberg," says Wilson, who's initiated a young offenders' project and in-depth technical training.

For its 1996 season, the writer Pete Brooks has devised A Plague on Both Your Houses, a Romeo and Juliet "road movie" with a Nineties youth culture setting alongside a repeat of Wilson's 1995 sell-out Othello.

The NYT's apocalyptic opening production, adapted by Ray Herman in wise-cracking vernacular from the Horace McCoy novel about a dance marathon during the Great Depression, reverberates long after the last contestant has limped home defeated.

It's intriguing, says Wilson, that a novel written in 1935 has major resonances within our own society, where there's an aimlessness about young people not of their making.

Set in the Thirties America of the book, his powerfully ironic production shows a public entertainment spectacle becoming a grim lifeline for desperate young people keeping body and soul together with the help of soup kitchens, trash cans and movie magazines.

Backed by the on-stage Max Sikorsky and his Boys swing band, who perform a cynical medley of standards - "We're In The Money"; "Give My Regards To Broadway"; "Happy Days Are Here Again" - MC Rocky Gravo (brilliantly delivered by Tim Baker with confident, crooning charm) calls the tune: free food and shelter for as long as people can shuffle, a cash prize for the fastest footwork and $1,000 for the last couple on their feet.

As the contest winds on its exhausted way - it is more about surviving than dancing or even winning - three couples spill out the details of their battered hopes.

Mario urges his pregnant, waxen-faced wife Ruby to carry on for a pittance, forcing her to sing an agonised "Make Believe" as the couples cling together, exhausted, in a waltz.

Runaway convict James Reilly, movie star wannabe Jackie (played by a gifted singer, Jayne Nesbitt), Mary who yearns to be the next Ruby Keeler and wide boy Vee also magnify the central tragedy.

When Gloria trades her body for an agent's mythic promises of stardom, her bleak escape is to be shot, put down by her gaunt, glassy-eyed partner like his own wounded horse.

While the story is one of collective pain, the production is packed with verve. This is a devastating slice of social history to which all history and drama teachers should drag their students.

Compulsive viewing.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? to September 14; Othello September 17 to 21, Bloomsbury Theatre (0171 388 8822). A Plague on Both Your Houses to September 14, Place Theatre ( 0171 387 0031). National Youth Theatre: 0171 281 3863.

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