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The power of market forces

Kevin Berry previews a pioneering theatrical event by five Bradford schools. The teachers involved with Ah-Gee-Bha-Gee have freely admitted that it is high risk theatre. Not content with a risky format they have decided, because of the problem of getting actors from different schools together, to make do with just one technical rehearsal and then they will work out an ending at that rehearsal. If that were not enough the first performance comes just a couple of hours after the all important rehearsal!

But listen to the enthusiasm and confidence pouring from those brave souls and anyone will be convinced that Ah-Ge-Bah-Gee is going to be wonderfully exciting for everyone fortunate enough to be taking part.

I must emphasise that last phrase because Ah-Ge-Bah-Gee is very much a promenade theatre event. Audiences will be involved from first to last as they walk into an Asian market. They will see dancers and musicians, listen to the banter from merchants, watch individual performers, buy things from the stalls and then be led into stories as young actors weave funny, exciting and poignant dramas for them. Quite a lot of what they see will have been improvised, much of it will be the actors' own material and four Asian languages will be heard.

Where did that strange title come from? No one is exactly sure how it happened but at a preliminary meeting Malcolm Shaw, a drama teacher at Belle View Girls, remembers playing with the idea of Market Forces as a title.

"But we wanted to reflect the background of our pupils. We weren't conversant with Punjabi or Urdu so we went for a second ... Ahgee-bhagee. It seemed to sum up the argie-bargie of the market place. It's Urdu, a rough translation, and I mean rough, is 'Welcome Sister'."

Alex Fellowes seems to have acted as a pivot for this project. He is a teacher at Scotchman Middle and he has a deserved reputation for introducing Shakespeare to bilingual children, having put on productions of Macbeth and A Winter's Tale with scenes in Urdu and Punjabi. His contribution to the market place is the story of Hir and Ranja from the Punjab, a story strongly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet but actually predating Shakespeare's play.

Rahila Ahmed at Margaret McMillan First School, just across the road from Scotchman, is preparing "Maruf the Cobbler", an Arabian Nights tale. She says: "The story is in English but there is a comedy scene with children playing the parts of beggars. They were asked to improvise the scene in which they beg from rich merchants. The improvisation was done in Punjabi the children's own language. We took the best bits, they were refined and then we put them into the play.

"I want to emphasise that the children did this quite naturally. They are so skilled in code switching. It is what makes bilingual children so very special and so wonderfully skilled. They are able to code switch so easily from their first language to their second language" The section from Belle View Girls has dialogue in Bengali, Pushti, Urdu and Punjabi and there is some deliciously fruity humour to boot. Malcolm Shaw again: "We began with women setting up a fruit and veg market stall and enjoying their work, singing and talking and joking. We decided to extend that so that it became a bit more magical. We had the visual richness of the stall and we wanted some movement. So we have a row of real melons and alongside are some melons with faces, and they talk to each other. One talks in Urdu and one in English and then others join in."

Some of the most sublime comedy will undoubtedly come from the youngsters of Lilycroft School and their version of the Pied Piper. Tom Brennan, their teacher, explained: "We've applied the Pied Piper to the Ah-Gee-Bha-Gee market place. But rather than take a story that exists elsewhere we are going to just take the idea of striking a bargain, yes we're keeping the rats as the pest, and then the bargain being broken. The rats will be dressed as gangsters, with shades.

"We've decided not to go for the flute and other conventional bits of the story - very difficult for children under the age of nine is flute playing. We're going to have taped music, on a ghetto blaster! She'll simply press a button. Varied music it will be, not 'nice' music but something like .. . the Hallelujah Chorus!" As mentioned earlier the ending is going to have to wait and it just may be that there is a slightly different climax when the play is taken to each of the participating schools. The teachers are as excited as their children for they will each be taking on a role, leading visitors around the market place to the location of each story. Joining in will need no encouragement.

For information on performances at each of the participating schools, tel: 01274 548178. There are two performances at Bradford Alhambra Studio on July 5, 01274 752000.

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