In brief

4th November 2005 at 00:00
THEATRE FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE: 50 YEARS OF PROFESSIONAL THEATRE IN THE UK. Edited by Stuart Bennett. Aurora Metro Press. pound;9.99

The great director Peter Brook once defined theatre as "serious play". Play is something children know all about; "the play" is generally regarded as adult territory. This book deals, in a multitude of ways, with the interaction between the two. Informing the whole publication, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes not, is the question: what is the purpose of theatre for young people? Is it primarily to help deal with contentious questions, from community divisions in Belfast to HIV? To contribute to child development in both mainstream and special schools? To stretch the imagination, whether in classroom or theatre? To help deliver the national curriculum? To provide pleasure, entertainment and food for thought, much as its adult equivalent is intended to do?

In other words, is it art, education or both? And what should be the relationship between theatre for young people in the UK (with its minority languages and multicultural communities) and other countries? The book is published in association with the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (known as Assitej, its French acronym), an organisation founded in the 1960s, partly to provide a bridge between countries on either side of the Iron Curtain. Paul Harman, chair of Assitej UK, in an early chapter, describes the battle within the organisation between different approaches - traditional theatre versus "theatre for development" by non-professionals. Stuart Bennett, a member of the pioneer theatre-in-education company at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, places the entire movement (or movements) in historical context and invites readers and practitioners to join the debate.

It is good to have on offer so many voices and such a wealth of experience, often with concrete examples, from, for instance, Tim Webb describing Oily Cart's inspiring special needs projects, to David Wood, the most prolific of children's playwrights, who provides tips on writing and directing; from Ian Yeoman, director of Theatre Powys, who, having declared that his company does not want theatre to be "an illustrated lesson attached to an attainment target", helpfully lists the principles of TIE, to Tony Graham, artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, which is about to open its purpose-built theatre near Tower Bridge. It was Caryl Jenner, founder of that company, who first brought children's theatre under a permanent roof in 1967, after 20 years spent touring.

Vicky Ireland, once artistic director of the highly successful Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, who describes her work in adapting Jacqueline Wilson's novels for the stage, sums up her feelings neatly: "We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing." Quite so.

HEATHER NEILL

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