Great night out with the kids

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Originally commissioned in the Play for Today slot on BBC TV in 1976, and workshopped into a small-scale stage version for the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool in 1983, Willy Russell's, Our Day Out - about a class of inner-city teenagers on an end of term outing - gets a new lease of life at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, with a script reworked and expanded by Russell himself.

Although the Liverpool version spawned many successful productions, Russell has always regarded it as "unfinished business": "I've seen productions in which it worked - mainly on the backs of the kids in it - but I've always wanted the chance to make it a better, more crafted night at the theatre rather than a film script with a few songs added on," he explains.

His chance came with the arrival of Bob Eaton as artistic director at the Belgrade. He took up his position this spring, at the height of the Belgrade's confrontation with Equity over the future of its Education Department.

At the start of his first season, Eaton wanted to reaffirm his commitment to young people and the local community with a show which would do justice to the Belgrade's thriving youth theatre. Our Day Out, with its battery of meaty roles for teenagers, was his choice, but having directed the 1983 Everyman production he was well aware that it could easily be swallowed up in the Belgrade's 800-seat auditorium.

Willy Russell was keen to develop the play and update it for the nineties, now that the subject of how best schools can serve their pupils seems to be more hotly debated. "In the characters of Mrs Kay and Mr Briggs, the play really presents two opposed educational ideologies on stage," says Russell. "Mrs Kay is not a liberal softie, she's a good, pragmatic teacher who knows instinctively that there's more to education than a diet of facts and figures. "

Mrs Kay wants her "Progress Class" - "Where you go when you're backward, like," explains Carol - to have a wonderful day out. But her plans are hi-jacked by the severe Mr Briggs, who wants to make the trip "educational". Alton Towers is too frivolous, so he diverts the coach to Conway Castle for "a dose of heritage".

"This is the nature of the great debate in education at the moment," says Russell. "Our headlong pursuit of 'standards' and the creation of successful, market-place children, has left a terrible, and ever-growing underclass of disaffected youngsters who see no hope and no place for themselves if they don't have the right grades. I can understand the concerns of people like Mr Briggs, but he thinks that Mrs Kay is bringing in anarchy. She isn't - she simply recognises the children's needs."

A good night out is certainly what Russell gives his audience in Glen Walford's production. The story of the outing sizzles along with robust, full-hearted performances from the 14 youth theatre members who produce some sharply observed cameos and poignant moments when their characters' vulnerability and near-despair can be glimpsed behind the bravado.

The five professional actors, bravely taking the adult roles, keep their end up, notably Lyn Whitehead as the motherly Mrs Kay. Eventually, Mrs Kay and the sad little waif, Carol, momentarily touch a nerve in Briggs' rigid heart, and so rescue the outing. "Why can't it always be this good?", sing the happy youngsters on their way home - and we echo that emotion.

Our Day Out runs at the Belgrade, Coventry to 28 September. Box Office: 01203 553055.

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