Chapters of drama to enact

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Oxford Playscripts. Carrie's War, By Nina Bawden Adapted by Robert Staunton, Oxford University Press Pounds 5, Smith, By Leon Garfield Adapted by Robert StauntonOxford University Press Pounds 5.30

Oxford Playscripts provide excellent secondary school plays, both original and adaptations, for classroom, drama studio and public performance.

They come with useful notes on sets, staging and presentation of character and have comprehensive activities which make them far more than mere acting editions.

Here, for example, are adaptations of two children's novels of near-classic status, frequently read in schools - Carrie's War especially - which provide searching ways of understanding the originals as well as first-rate dramatic experiences in their own right.

Both novels have forms which present the adaptor with considerable problems. Carrie's War is a novel of reminiscence: the adult reflects on childhood experience and is now able to understand and interpret it through the passing of years.

Smith is almost a pasticheof an 18th-century piquaresque novel, with a long cast of characters and ranging over place and time in a way which precludes naturalistic stage presentation.

The ways in which these problems are solved for the stage form keys to under-standing the novels themselves. Robert Staunton's own accounts of his approach makes this clear.

For example, once the focus of Carrie's War becomes the adult Carrie, then the differences between novels and plays can be accounted for and made into strengths. She can act as the all-seeing author, providing description where necessary and the narrator's own views. The play becomes non-naturalistic, with a tiny cast doubling up, certain characters represented by simple changes of costume, or even by dolls.

Smith, on the other hand, is expansive. Thirty-six speaking characters swirl round an unlocalised set: a chorus provides commentary, advice and even physical help although the convention is that it remains invisible to the characters themselves. Thus the swift, inexhaustibly surprising, ironic structure of the novel is reproduced.

Both novels are set in particularised historical periods: the activities let pupils enter and understand them, with their own research and reading, improvisation and parallel creativity.

This series deserves great success in schools, because it presents far more than good acting opportunities. The plays open up new fields of knowledge and experience, as the best fiction and the best drama should. And they'd make terrific school produc-tions as well.

Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire.

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