The odd one out among the comics

Kate Clanchy watches youth and student theatre.

As the Edinburgh Fringe grows more professional, computerised and expensive each year, so the number of youth theatre groups at the Festival declines. This year, they were hard to spot among the phalanx of comics and newly swelling ranks of rock and folk musicians.

Leicestershire Youth Arts made it to their usual spot at the St Anne's Community Centre, though, resplendent in a new, Lottery-bought minibus. Their central funding, however, is as sparse as ever. Leicestershire's solution to this is to work incredibly hard, putting on 10 shows within the fortnight and doubling up the actors to the point that two young people were involved in four shows.

The result of this sort of pressure, and the fact that there is only one director and one production team, is to, some extent, fomulaic theatre.

The shows all last an hour, ensemble production takes precedence over individual characterisation, and there is a fair amount of youth theatre style straight-to-the-front shouting to move the plot along.

This worked well for the production of John Godber's Teechers. After all, in this tell-it-like-it-is militant GCSE classic, children are supposed to be slightly caricatured versions of themselves. speed and zest are of the essence, and any crudeness of performance can be excused on the grounds that this is a version of a school play. A youthful audience howled approval and I was convulsed by the frighteningly accurate portrayal of staff-room politics - though, in all the fun, I found the poignant ending rushed.

The Killing of Sister George was a rather less felicitous choice. Frank Marcus's play has the huge advantage, for a youth theatre, of an all-female cast, but it is an ageing, lesbian, repressed all-female cast from a peculiar version of the 1950s - well beyond the talents of any group of schoolgirls. Angharad Owen, in the central role of the ageing radio star, did express anguish effectively - but it was teenage anguish. Alcoholism and butch role-playing were, I am glad to say, out of her ken.

Winners of the National Student Drama Festival have the advantage of funding and reputation before they arrive. They have also, judging by the performance of the Welsh College of Music and Drama, some excellent teachers. Nobody Here But Us Chickens is an extraordinary piece of absurdist theatre which forces its audience to stand within one glaring white tent and peer into another. Here, not four feet from you and smelling of hot tent plastic, a young man in his underpants is convinced he is a chicken.

It could all be very self-indulgent and silly were it not for the focus and conviction of the two young actors which were unwavering throughout, even when neighbouring schoolchildren started crowing back.

The National Youth Theatre are also properly subsidised and publicised. They can even afford a real auditorium and to commission a new play from Peter Terson, the man who set the NYT on its way with Zigger-Zagger.

Have You Seen This Girl is on a contemporary and fascinating subject: the reconstruction of events by police in order to trace a missing girl.

The theme allows the young players to construct, very ably and frequently comically, a large number of street vignettes while the essentially sweet and innocent charcter of the missing girl is exposed.

The meandering structure, however, means that we are at least an hour into the play before the tension starts to mount. In Edinburgh at Festival time, unfortunately, that is too long. The crowds expect a punch line.

Still to come, Nottinghamshire Education Theatre Company return next week with Hans Up! when "The Snow Queen" meets "The Emperor's New Clothes" and other stories.

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