A powerful jolt of the unexpected;Theatre in education

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Brian Hayward is impressed by a play about road safety

THE NINE LIVES OF RODDY HOGG. By Baldy Bane. Touring until November 19

Baldy Bane has two companies touring The Nine Lives of Roddy Hogg, and neither of them will play at a more deserving school than Larbert High in Stenhousemuir.

The reason is obvious to everyone at the school. Roddy Hogg is sponsored by the Scottish Road Safety Campaign, and in 1977 Larbert High opened an annexe on the opposite side of the busy Main Street. So you might say the school has had a main road running through it for over 20 years. That makes the first year of more than 300 pupils an ideal target audience for a programme which sets out to be the Tufty Club in long trousers.

First year at the secondary is a dangerous time on the roads. This is one of the many facts thrown at the audience like spears, in a text that for the most part cleverly disguises its research in gritty realism. But I would have changed one thing: Roddy is almost knocked down on his first morning at school by the headteacher. Surely the head would have been at his desk long before.

Sponsors are notorious for wanting their money's worth of instruction. (I hoped that the three police officers in the audience, in full yellow emergency overalls, were traffic not thought police.) But Baldy Bane has grown skilful in making drama out of data, plaiting research into dramatic and comic interplay that holds a young audience's attention.

The story follows Roddy Hogg (played by the appealing Jonathan Strange) from the pram to his second year at secondary. The structure of the play seems to be laid down in the very first scene. His grandma is pushing his pram along the pavement when a badly parked car causes her onto the road, with nearly fatal consequences. One life gone, we say to ourselves, remembering the title. From then on, we follow him through childhood to secondary, accompanied by squealing tyres and horn blasts as he runs into the road to escape bullies or chase a football. Or, later, merely sprinting between the cars to be cool and not use the zebra crossing.

Those of us ticking off the nine lives, however, are wrong-footed. Our attention is on whether Roddy will get to dance with his girl at the disco. But it is Roddy's zany, generous-hearted sister Brenda (a high octane performance here from Christina Cochrane) who dies the death, on an illicit errand for Roddy. It is a sudden and shocking moment in the play, much more than any ninth encounter could be, and it leaves Roddy with a lifetime to remember his sister's death.

The production has a great deal going for it, not least the elastic versatility of a cast of four who change clothes and characters in quick time. John Hannibal plays the headteacher, promising to eject any first or second years smelling of alcohol or polo mints from the disco. The same actor also scores as Roddy's glaikit friend Malky, always the loser. When they play football Roddy chooses to be Rangers, to a considerable roar of approval from the audience, and Malky has to be content with Brazil. Their versatility had also impressed the courteous sixth former who guided me from car to theatre. He had been in the morning audience watching the same cast perform Lethal Weapon, the play for S5-S6, cautioning pre-drivers about the dangers of speeding. A workshop followed that performance, using forum theatre to explore the resonances of the play.

Baldy Bane, tel: 0141 632 0193

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