Home is where your stage is;Edinburgh Festival;Theatre;Arts

13th August 1999 at 01:00
Sometimes it's good to be homeless. Last year, developers took a fancy to the Old Athenaeum theatre in the centre of Glasgow and made Scottish Youth Theatre an offer they couldn't refuse, leaving the company prosperous but without a home. In Strathclyde, the Citizens' Theatre was lying dark and empty having lost its funding. One phone call later, 200 young people were spending most of the school holiday in Scotland's most famous theatre, with artistic director Giles Havergal hoping it might become an annual event.

The SYT Summer Festival is growing in all directions, and it works hard to cover the map. This year it auditioned 600 young people, twice the number of available places, and the mailing list for the successful candidates reads like a gazetteer. "Foundation" courses were held in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Glenrothes, the core "Production and Performance" course was at the Citz and the new "Advanced Skills" course (this year on "Physical Shakespeare") ends tonight with a performance at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh.

The performances at the Citz were wildly contrasting in their impact, reflecting with some accuracy the two differing aims of the SYT, on the one hand the "highest quality of artistic product", and on the other the "personal, social and educational development" of the participants. On the main stage, the company essayed The Pirates of Penzance, in the Broadway version of the New York Shakespeare Festival, which added on bits of 1930s Hollywood, with young ladies swimming the Cornish seas Busby Berkeley-style, and with the county constabulary mutating into the Keystone Cops.

Gilbert and Sullivan can be a gruesome trial for the teenage tenors and basses and the young men deserve every plaudit for their determination; as Browning observed, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Not for the first time, however, the girls have the better of it, not least the young ladies of the chorus, whose crisp articulation scored the Gilbert as well as the Sullivan, and saved the ship from the wreckers.

Not that the production didn't occasionally sail near the rocks, and musical director Stephen Doughty sometimes did well to hold on to the tiller. In a very Savoyard way, the production makes fun of its shortcomings. When eccentric scoring for the small orchestra causes a breakdown, a Keystone WPC grabs a violin from the orchestra pit and prettily fiddles the remainder of the melody. In revenge, when the stage company lose the place, the orchestra lays down its instruments and stands up to sing a cappella chorus.

Meanwhile, in a sweltering and packed Circle Studio, SYT supremo Mary McCluskey directed a stage version of that popular reader for primary schools, Charlotte's Web. Joseph Robinette's adaptation filters out the undercurrent of misanthropy in the original, and the result is a playful text of great warmth and fun, which the production interprets with delicate skill.

There is quite extraordinary playing from Thomas Pollock as young Wilbur, the runt of the litter. It is not every actor's wish to shave his head, and wear a snout, false ears and a pink romper suit, but this didn't stop the young actor from winning the audience's affection for this rather selfish little piglet. He was well partnered by Annmarie Fulton in the role of Fern Arable, the little girl who saves him from an early cull. Her total focus on her role realised an extremely sincere performance, and together these two led a cast of disciplined players in a delightful production.

Brian Hayward

"The Pirates of Penzance", August 2-7; "Charlotte's Web", August 5-7

Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow

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