Art beat

19th March 1999 at 00:00
As soon as Daniel and Samuel, swathed in leopard-skin sashes, began to pace the boards, roaring menacingly at us, we knew we were in for a good time. They were the first characters to take the stage at the Arts Theatre in the presentation of 15 plays, all finalists in the Under 11s Playwriting Scheme run by the Soho Theatre Company in Westminster. All the young playwrights had learned script-writing in workshops run by the company over several months. They were fulfilling one of the prescriptions of the literacy hour, but that was probably incidental to them.

Daniel Bizzell of Westminster Cathedral RC School arranged for a little old lady to best the muscular show-offs by challenging them to pick up a bead. The boasters' hands being too clumsy, she won a ticket for all the rides in the fair.

This little playlet, a mere five minutes long - all 15 filled only an hour and 10 minutes - set the tone for the afternoon last week on Monday. The young playwrights all displayed perception, wit and sometimes humour. Tough subjects were handled with aplomb: Amber Is Guilty, by Sharmin Khalique and Shepina Khanom from All Souls School, for instance, dealt with rivalry between children thrust together by their parents, and The Worst Parents with an impending divorce. Shuaib Ahmed and Stefan Lloyd Jones, also from All Souls, brought about a fairy-tale ending, however, with the parents seeing the error of their ways. The company of adult actors treated the scripts with proper respect, bringing out the humour without playing down to the packed primary school audience. There are plans to expand the scheme next year and to produce a teacher's resource pack - continued funding from Marks and Spencer and the City of Westminster permitting. Information: 0171 287 5060.

The previous Thursday Schools Prom, Wales at St David's Hall in Cardiff was a particularly joyful occasion. Over 800 young people - more even than on the last night of the 1998 Albert hall Schools Proms - performed to a partisan audience. Music for Youth's organisation of such events is awesome: in their HQ backstage, banks of walkie-talkie radios might be heard picking up communications elsewhere in the building: "People are handing out paper bags before the concert; what's your feeling about that?" There were a few ill-timed pops later, but most of the children in the audience restrained themselves and their bags until the grand finale, Tchaikovsky's 1812 for which we provided cannon with varying degrees of boom.

Balloons and streamers fell on our heads at the end and there was a heart-felt rendition of Mae hen wlad fy nhadau, but for all the emotion and fun, we had experienced a serious celebration of youth music in Wales. Participants came mainly from the south (travel is so expensive) but there was a polished plea for Welsh culture from Ysgol Glanaethwy, Bangor, whose excellent singing and choral speaking bear testimony to their experience of many Schools Proms past.

Three hundred children from Caerphilly primary schools sang traditional Welsh folk tunes newly arranged for them by composer Gareth Glyn, who took a bow. The Four Counties Youth Orchestra played Borodin to professional standard and the New Orleans Welsh Connection and the Greater Gwent Youth Brass Band got feet tapping. Katharine Allen, a sixth-form mezzo soprano from Whitchurch sang "It Might as Well Be Spring" so sweetly that a professional career can be confidently predicted. The next Music for Youth events will be the regional festivals. For more information: 0181 870 9624.

On Friday afternoon at a book festival in Fishguard, Michael Morpurgo held his primary-age audience spell-bound. Book Live 99 was part of a new initiative funded by the European Commission to encourage cultural exchange on the fringes of Europe. Irish balladeers and storytellers joined Welsh poets and the harpist Elinor Bennett to appreciate regional cooking and Celtic "crack". Poetry in Wales is booming,as it has been for 1,000 years. There are impromptu poetry competitions in the ferociously difficult strict metres and one of the guest bards at Fishguard, Meirion MacIntyre Huws, teaches 20 office workers cynghanedd of a Monday lunch-time.

As for Mr Morpurgo, he's an honorary Welshman, having a farm near St David's where city children go to enjoy the countryside and tell stories. He described taking 40 infants on a school visit to the Tower of London when he was a young teacher, preparing them with mock executions beforehand and scaring them rigid on the day by telling them that the ghost of Sir walter Raleigh was at hand. His point was that fiction and fact merge when you write a story; this became his book, My Friend Walter.

The first Action for Children's Arts Conference takes place at the University of Nottingham this weekend. Speakers include playwright David Wood and Colin Grigg, head of school and community programmes at the Tate Gallery. Tickets: 01422 843769. Membership enquiries: Fax 0181 542 7723.

Heather Neill

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