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Scottish Connections falter as funds dry up

Shell Connections, one of the world's largest celebrations of youth theatre, is again taking a Scottish company to perform in London, but for how much longer? asks Brian Hayward

hatever the state of Shell's oil and pipeline assets, the group has certainly struck gold with Connections, its simple but remarkable partnership with the National Theatre that was established 12 years ago.

Each year about a dozen leading young playwrights are commissioned to write for youth theatres. Hundreds across the UK and abroad apply to take part.

In the spring, 15 theatres from Plymouth to Edinburgh stage the chosen plays by the selected companies in their hinterland and one production of each play goes to the final showcase at the National Theatre in July. It is an exciting experience for the playwrights and young actors alike, which is why the idea has spread to Norway, Ireland, Italy and Australia.

This international interest creates the opportunity for youth exchanges. A visit from a Norwegian group last year led to Edinburgh's Lyceum Youth Theatre giving six performances of its show in Oslo and experiencing what it describes as "an extraordinary response" from the Norwegian audiences.

It is no secret that Shell is disappointed with the apparent reluctance of Scottish youth theatres to participate in Connections, in spite of Shell Scotland giving an extra pound;8,000 for groups to travel to Edinburgh and stay for the regional festival.

Shetland Youth Theatre benefited from the grants last year to go to the Lyceum and on to London; this year it is absent for the simple reason its funds have been axed. And it is not the only successful youth theatre to get the chop from its local authority, which is why there was a sad irony about Shell's efforts to entice Scottish youth theatres to take more interest in Connections.

Suzy Graham-Adriani, producer of Connections for the National Theatre, deliberately chose to launch the 2005 event at Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre last month and emphasised that among the commissioned writers next year would be the Scottish playwrights Ali Smith and Sharman Macdonald.

In the audience were members of the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Youth Theatre, the cream of 10 youth theatres run by Louisa Brown and Chris Lee.

The company has won the right to present its production of Eclipse at the National tomorrow, but its joy has been tempered by news that Aberdeen City Council has cut its grant for next year, which may lead to the company folding. Like others, it finds it hard to believe public statements of support for the arts when it knows about local funding cuts that undo good works to save relatively little money.

Simon Armitage's play which the AAYT takes to London is set on the beaches below the cliffs of Cornwall in 1999 on the day of the total eclipse of the sun, when six friends meet the mysterious Lucy Lime, a self-proclaimed "walking universe". The play unfolds in scenes interspersed, very fashionably, with soliloquies from the friends.

Monologues are all the rage this year, nowhere more so than with the Kildare Youth Theatre from the Crooked House Theatre in Newbridge, whose welcome appearance at the regional Connections showcase was the result of yet another youth theatre casualty.

Steve Small, co-ordinator of the event at the Lyceum, had hoped to include a Finnish company. However, they have funding cuts in Finland as well, and the company, unable to carry through its original intention, could only offer another work in Swedish. An unknown youth theatre performing an unknown work in Swedish was deemed a marketing challenge too far, so Mr Small turned instead to the Irish company.

It brought Karamazoo, a matching pair of his 'n' her monologues, in which Philip Ridley shows us an adolescent being turned on the cogwheels of time, plunging into the sexually aware adult world and, at the same time, tormented by the loss of a talismanic parent.

Ali Cunningham, all black leather boots, designer jeans and baby-doll top, played the girl in a performance of amazing composure and resource. Ger Brady gave us the young man's version, in street cred black and with a tattoo he could not show us. He was as quick on his feet as any stand-up comedian. These two each held the Lyceum single-handed for half an hour and then strolled off the stage apparently indifferent to the roars of admiration.

The Levenmouth YMCA, based at Buckhaven Theatre, Fife, since 1997, presented Headstrong by April de Angelis, a dramatist who has had success in the theatre, the opera house and on radio. Her women's lib story is a tale of 18th-century female rebelliousness passed from mother to daughter, the parent transported abroad for the Luddite act of burning crops and the daughter arraigned for setting fire to a clipper loaded with opium in Canton Harbour. The daughter is servant to a broken-hearted young mistress who has been cruelly fed with opium to cure her of what the uncomprehending doctor diagnoses as nymphomania.

Cleverly staged, the play is uniformly well acted, not least by the young men in the unsympathetic parts.

During the four days of the Connections showcase, young participants took part in talks, discussions and skills sessions on improvisation, creating a character, directing and Shakespeare. Mark Thomson, artistic director of the Lyceum, led a workshop, but injury prevented Mary McCluskey, director of the Scottish Youth Theatre, from doing so.

This is the second year Steve Small has masterminded Connections at the Lyceum (where he has been education officer for nearly 10 years) but it is his last. He is leaving to become associate director with James Brining at Dundee Rep, where his first responsibility will be to develop the theatre's education work.

Suzy Graham-Adriani, tel 020 7452 3312

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