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Play on worlds to fire imagination

A cross-media production presents an innovative exploration of a sense of self, writes Brian Hayward

Prince Unleashed

Visible Fictions with BBC Radio 4 and BBC Scotland Gilmorehill G12, Glasgow touring to Edinburgh, Wick, Dundee, Cumbernauld, Falkirk, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, Mallaig, Fraserburgh and Inverness until May 12

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Stand up the boy who famously said that he preferred radio to television because the pictures were better.

He ought to take some credit for the Visible Fictions' new production, Prince Unleashed, which sets out to marry the imagination of radio drama with the immediacy of theatre.

Interestingly, this is the second mixed marriage from this innovative company. Last year it blended theatre and television. This year the first move was made by Lu Kemp, a BBC Scotland producer, who approached the theatre company to help her devise a radio play.

One thing led to another and Visible Fictions realised that it could make a stage play out of the radio drama and work the theme into the larger pattern of its work, which is currently Retreat, an 18-month series of participation projects for young people who are generally or clinically concerned with the problems of withdrawal, isolation and mental well-being.

The play is bang on the button. Teenager Holly stays in her bedroom, in denial of pretty much everything since her parents and pet dog were killed in a car crash from which she alone escaped. She has been given a home by her downmarket aunt and uncle; she is a skivvy, he a work-shy drunk.

How unlike the home life of Holly this is, with her horses, Mozart CDs and trips to Paris. Her only solace in her misery is her imagined conversations with her dead pet, the pedigree Belgian shepherd, Prince.

Her only human contact is her cousin Callum, a no-hoper aspiring witlessly to be a somebody.

One night their one-sided conversation is alarmingly interrupted, and this is where the headphones the audience wears really come into their own. The soundtrack carries us to the "Happy Hunting Ground" where Prince claims he has gone.

This turns out to be a surreal fairground, where Holly can stagger unharmed from a terrifying roller-coaster ride, shoot to kill at coconut heads, and win her mother's hairbrush (her mother once hit her with it) as a prize.

Much more alarming - and moments of pure theatre - is the appearance of Prince himself. This is Steven Cartwright, stilling the audience with his sinister, underplayed menace. No longer the obedient pet, this controlling villain is seemingly bent, with the tacit connivance of Holly, on wreaking some sinister revenge on the sleeping aunt and uncle. For this we wear the headphones again, and the play finishes, with the injunction that we should make up an ending ourselves.

Part of me at this point wants to shout out like Stoppard's Moon, crying:

"But it doesn't make sense!" The other part points to the educational purpose and the benefits of having loose threads, started hares and themes rather than narrative.

Playwright Robert Forrest has a beguiling way with words and his allusions flicker through the dialogue, prompting and provoking at every turn. Young people affected by the themes of the play are sure to be touched with many moments of recognition.

Much or all of this inevitably depends on the inner world of Holly, and the play has to reflect her dysfunctional attitude. The headphones are a successful way of giving the audience access to her inarticulate and corkscrew mind, but can any marriage of radio and theatre really work?

The programme wisely remarks that radio is best heard alone, whereas theatre needs a group of watchers, and if ever this precise production loses its grip, it is in those rare moments when the actors are able to add little or nothing to the soundtrack.

Nowadays, theatre companies that were able to work exclusively for young people have to tap into every audience possible. The vogue phrase now is the inclusive "family show", and Visible Fictions will tour in theatres and arts centres until they finish in Inverness in mid May.

At the same time, the company has a busy itinerary of primary and secondary schools in Ayrshire, Glasgow, Dunfermline, Midlothian and Aberdeen, and offer teachers educational resources that can be downloaded from its website.

In two schools in each area, Visible Fictions will transform the hall or the gym into a fully-equipped touring theatre space. This gives those schools the valuable opportunity to use the writing skills that go into posters, press releases and programmes, the "community" skills of house management and the enterprise skills of advertising and running a box office to inform an enterprise curriculum project.

Prince Unleashed will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on March 25

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