23rd February 2001 at 00:00
What a terrific writer David Almond is. The new play by the author of Skellig, Wild Girl, Wild Boy, part of the Catch season of children's theatre at the Lyric in Hammersmith, deals with a serious subject - the loss of a parent - with a deep and moving understanding of a child's grief, but the lightest possible touch.

Almond's writing is full of everyday poetry which puts to shame the flat dialogue now all-too-familiar on the London stage. Elaine, who remembers a sunny time of jokes and pretend play with the father she has lost, is struggling at school (when she goes) and not always on good terms with her mother. She revisits her father's allotment, where together they once planted "fairy seeds" and listened to the "larky birds" singing. The Wild Boy, a good-natured scarecrow of a character who hasn't yet mastered speech, appears to her and no one else, although most people can smell him. Elaine now has someone who needs her help, someone to share her loneliness; doctors cannot make head or tail of her condition. Eventually, "Mam" enters Elaine's imaginary world and there is a hopeful but not sentimental ending.

Janet Bamford is excellent as Elaine, keeping the children in the audience, aged nine to 12, gripped, convincing them she is one of them. The production is simple, but uses clever lighting and sound to convey changes of place and time, although the doubling of some characters may be confusing.

Wild Girl, Wild Boy, a joint production with Pop-up Theatre, will visit more than 20 other venues in England and Wales by April. It is supported by Sainsbury's Checkout Theatre, an initiative to fund high-quality plays for 10 to 14-year-olds. Pop-up: 020 7609 3339, Meanwhile, at the Lyric, the Catch season continues with two plays for infants (The Tale of the Anklet and Bop! - Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral, which has all the ingredients of a Bollywood musical) and the deliciously named Bambi, the Wilderness Years for teenagers and adults, which promises "to shed new darkness on the bittersweet story of the creature with the big dewy eyes". Tickets: 020 8741 2311.

Alongside all this is a three-year literacy project, Telling Tales, which encourages children in 10 Hammersmith and Fulham schools to write their own plays. Te 300 children taking part have all been given free tickets for David Almond's play. Their own will be performed at the Lyric in the summer.

Children in Westminster have been taking part in Soho Theatre's Under-11 Playwriting Project, which has been running for three years. Year 6s in nine schools will soon be able to find their schools' previous plays on the web ( At St Saviour's school in Maida Vale, Andrew Davies's class worked so purposefully that by the end of one morning session there were half a dozen plays. Jonathan Lloyd, Soho's head of education, had already led them in a character-writing workshop. This time, stimulated by a piece specially written by Lloyd and performed by two Soho actors, Aileen Gonsaves and David Nellist, about a pair of Year 6 twins and their nerdy teacher, they concentrated on structure: establishing, developing, surprising and concluding.

Jonathan encouraged groups and pairs of pupils to introduce sibling rivalry between the twins, to set up a situation and then add a reversal to keep the audience on their toes.

Entries, by individuals or groups, have to be in by March 2. A representative number will be chosen for performance at the Soho Theatre in July. Information: 020 7287 5060.

Resounding proof that those who teach can also do is provided by Graham Crowley, professor of painting at the Royal College of Art, and Chris Orr, professor of printmaking and head of fine art. Both have solo shows on this month. Chris Orr's amusing, detailed pieces are in Semi-Antics at the Jill George Gallery in Soho until March 2, and Graham Crowley's display of unusual and varied landscapes, Familiar Ground, is at Beaux Arts in Cork Street until March 3.

It's a good week for poetry lovers in Leeds, Sheffield, Southampton, London, Norwich, Cambridge and Oxford. The First Lines tour will introduce five young Gregory Award-winning poets to new audiences in bookshops and schools, ending at Borders, Oxford, on March 4. The poets will arrive in a bus and surprise, enlighten and amuse. Among these hardy travellers are the latest Gregory winner, Clare Pollard (with The Heavy Petting Zoo), and Owen Sheers, winner of the Vogue Talent Competition for Young Writers. Information: 020 8960 0602.

Heather Neill

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