8th June 2001 at 01:00
How exactly do you describe a "bronco"? Even playwright Douglas Maxwell finds it a bit of a problem - and he's an expert, as is clear from his play touring children's parks this summer, Decky does a Bronco. But, here goes. You stand on a swing, "worky" it up (that's the technical term, at least in Girvan in the west of Scotland, where Decky is set) until it's level with the bar, then jump off and send it whizzing and clattering around the bar above you while you simultaneously leap clear underneath, preferably on to grass. If you are over 12, don't try this unsupervised.

Douglas Maxwell is only 26 and he was an ace broncoer when he was nine. He's also quite a practised playwright these days, having written more than 20. "But only four are good ones," he says, modestly. Decky is certainly "good". It is one of those rare pieces which combine sufficient sophistication to get adults thinking (not to mention laughing and crying) while young children are gripped by events which they recognise all too well. A site-specific piece, it was first produced by Grid Iron theatre at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and is now touring swing parks in a revival directed by Ben Harrison in collaboration with the Almeida Theatre in London.

To say Decky is "about" bullying would be to diminish it. It is a subject powerfully dealt with in the play, but this is real theatre, not an issue-based project, with characters interacting on several levels, and in some cases including their points of view as both adults and children. Decky is the butt of the teasing, the one who can't bronco, unlike cool O'Neil who is brilliant at it. The play deals with children's culture, but also, subtly, with the way children's expectations and assumptions change as they grow up. And do adults worry about the safety of broncoing? Well, Douglas says he sees children doing it everywhere, and far more dangerous acrobatics besides ("They do somersaults in the air; they think they're unbreakable"). So far, parents report positively that, on the walk home, they find themselves discussing the issues raised by the play rather than the likelihood of coming a cropper. People comment on the naturalism of the language, but that is, of course, the art that conceals art. Besides, as Douglas points out, there is no swearing in it, so it can't really be naturalistic, can it?

Until tomorrow, Decky is in Whitworth Park, Manchester (0161 274 0600), and next week at Nunsmoor Park, Fenham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (0191 230 5151), followed by weeks at Coram's Fields in London WC1 (0207 359 4404), Florence Park, Oxford (01865 798600), the University of Bath (01225 448844), and the Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (01273 685861).

The Almeida in London is presenting (at its temporary King's Cross base) a play which thoughtful sixth-formers will love. Neil LaBute is a sharp, young American writer whose The Shape of Things locks straight into the debate (raging once more around the Turner Prize) about the subjectivity, even self-advertisement, of some contemporary art. But it is also about trust and betrayal, about learning from relationships with the opposite sex at student age, about definitions of "self" and "art". Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is an artist who uses friendship in a novel way to further her student success. If towards the end (which it would be criminal to reveal) the characters become less credible people than lines of argument, it is often witty and gains much from the Smashing Pumpkins music which punctuates the short scenes. An excellent introduction to theatre for the screen-sated generation. Tickets: 020 7359 4404.

The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition is traditionally democratic, with an opportunity for as-yet-unknown painters to have their work shown in a major gallery - and, indeed, for visitors who might be intimidated by the idea of contemporary art in another context to exercise their critical faculties. There is so much to see and of such variety that it would take several visits to do the exhibition justice, but most people will probably make straight for Peter Blake's controversial juxtaposition of pieces by stars old and new, from Bridget Riley (Technicolor op-art) to Damien Hirst (a pastel spot painting) and Tracey Emin (her autobiographically embroidered armchair), with contributions by and of stars of another kind. Here is "Chocolate Sunset" by Paul McCartney, next-door-but-one to two garish views of another pop icon, "Wax Kylie" by Rankin. It is, like the exhibition as a whole, an eclectic mix. But in the Small Weston Room off this is a quiet, soothing collection of atmospheric and beautifully executed landscapes by academician Frederick Cuming. For information about the exhibition and associated events: 020 7300 8000, Opera North is reaching out to new audiences with its chamber production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. This is the first foray into opera by director Tim Supple, whose productions, at the Young Vic and elsewhere, such as Grimm Tales and The Comedy of Errors, have proved popular with young people. We are told that he will concentrate on the drama's brutal essentials: poverty, hunger, wild fantasy and terror. In each venue - in Leeds, Whitley Bay, Preston, The Lowry in Salford, Newark, Huddersfield and York - a group of local children will provide the children's chorus. Information: 0113 2445326.

Heather Neill

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