6th April 2001 at 01:00
Campers. By Peter Terson. The Stoke Repertory Theatre.

It's not every day that an established playwright offers to write a play for a school. Brian Hadley, head of drama at Edensor high school in Stoke-on-Trent, admits he was stunned when Peter Terson's letter arrived.

Mr Terson, who for many years wrote for the National Youth Theatre - Zigger Zagger and The Apprentices were both popular in the Sixties and Seventies - saw Edensor pupils in action in a school production of The Apprentices last year. Impressed by their "gutsiness" and energy, he offered to create a drama specifically for them.

But Mr Hadley was not so stunned that he couldn't lay down a few ground rules. He was honoured and flattered to have the play - but it had to be right for his school. "Brian gave me strict instructions," says Mr Terson. "He said, 'I need very good parts for my good actors, cameos for the shyer kids and a chorus for all the others who want to be in it.'" Brian Hadley knows Mr Terson's work well - as a member of the NYT in the 1960s, he performed in The Apprentices and Zigger Zagger. But he has also staged 26 productions with Edensor pupils, including Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Animal Farm. Any interested child can be involved - most productions feature more than 100 pupils - and Mr Hadley knows what works.

To fit the brief, Mr Terson delivered Campers, a tale of two campsites, a luxury holiday site in France and a refugee camp in the mountains of what could be Kosovo. He threads tragedy with farce as he brings us face to face with the racial tension that simmers beneath a civilised veneer in many parts of Europe, but which has exploded into war in others. While site managers and teachers tackle the racism of bored and boorish school parties in France, the refugees are confounded by the ruthlessness of their opponents and the corruption of their so-called protectors.

The play opens on April 11 at Stoke Rep, the city's spanking new theatre, built with the aid of pound;1.5 million lottery funding. Pupils, who have been giving up evenings and weekends since January, have moulded the text into a spirited, tightly choreographed piece, with plenty of rewriting and ad-libbing to suit individual styles. They are clearly moved by the play's message, and inspired by the chance to play in a theatre with a national reputation. Mr Hadley brings out the best in them, they say.

Carl Harding, 16, who plays a superbly comic role as the overbearing German manager of the French campsite, has been in school productions for five years. He says: "Mr Hadley wants us to do our best and we learn about self-discipline and patience. But it's fun, even thoug it's hard with GCSEs and coursework to finish, too."

Clare Johnson, 15, says pupils felt privileged "to get the opportunity to have a play written for us and to be able to show what we can do". Paul Orry, 14, says the school, an 11-16 secondary that serves the declining manufacturing communities of the Potteries, often gets a bad press locally and this was a chance "to show the town that we are not hooligans, that we work hard, like everybody else, and enjoy entertaining people".

Richard Mercer, Edensor's headteacher, says Mr Hadley manages to bring on students with "enormous personal difficulties". One former pupil, a boy who arrived in Year 10, had been excluded from two other schools and risked being sucked into a drugs culture. He became interested in drama through Mr Hadley's encouragement, joined the Stoke Young Rep, took a BTec in performing arts at college, and now has a place at university.

The school had an Ofsted inspection three weeks before preview performances of Campers were scheduled, but daily rehearsals went on regardless. No surprise, then, that the school's extra-curricular activities received high praise in the report.

Brian Hadley came to Edensor in 1972, having trained as a teacher at Keele University in between NYT productions. He has established first-class drama facilities, including a school theatre with state-of-the-art lighting and a workshop studio. A member of Stoke Rep's executive committee, he put together its education bid for the lottery funding.

He also runs the the Rep's youth theatre - directing, designing and encouraging. He is utterly committed to the role performing arts can play in bolstering a community broken by the decline of its industries. The evidence is all around the school, which is sited in the middle of wasteland and factory rubble. "I am not here to train actors," he says. "I'm here to create opportunities, to give kids something to look back on, or a hobby to enjoy in later life. There's no stage restriction on theatre. You don't have to stop at 35 like a footballer."

Peter Terson also has a long association with Stoke. His big break was at the Victoria Theatre, where his first play, A Night to Make the Angels Weep, was performed in 1966. When Brian Hadley asked permission to stage The Apprentices last year, Mr Terson was curious. He saw the show and was impressed by the performances. "A lot of directors aim for that raw energy, but there it was. Brian Hadley works it so well. He knows the value of a play as a piece of education as well as entertainment and I wanted to write for that."

Campers is at Stoke Repertory Theatre, April 11-14. Tickets: 01782 233933

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