Kitchen-sink drama on the Fringe

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Living with a squabbling teenage cast, one drama teacher is really suffering for her art. Adi Bloom sees pupils and staff on and off stage in Edinburgh.

STACKING her pupils' shirts into the washing machine, Maz Campbell realises that hers is not a conventional summer holiday.

The head of theatre studies at Sedbergh school, in Cumbria, is spending August sharing a flat with 16 teenage pupils. Together, they are presenting their school play at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

The pupils are performing The Exam, a comic play by Andy Hamilton, whose credits include Drop The Dead Donkey. Directed by Ms Campbell, the play depicts the struggle of three GCSE stereotypes - the swot, the geek and the Jack-the-lad - to overcome their demons, internal and paternal, and take their exams.

"There have been disagreements over the washing-up. And it takes a tremendous amount of work to get the kids to communicate with the audience," said Ms Campbell. "But they have to be disciplined, and they learn a lot from that discipline. Nothing gives a teacher more pleasure."

Jonathan Salt, a Cambridgeshire RE and German teacher, similarly believes that there is much for pupils to learn from a summer in Edinburgh. He has employed two sixth-formers to manage sound and lighting for his production of One For The Road, a matter-of-fact presentation of the horrors of torture, in which he takes the leading role. "It's valuable exposure to the world of theatre," he said. "They get to see professional processes, to see how a show comes together."

Written by Harold Pinter, One For The Road is not light viewing. The young cast, playing victims of unseen atrocities, are impressive in challenging roles. But, as their torturer, Mr Salt is too genial to be convincingly evil: his malevolent threats never quite ring true.

But the role will be useful in the autumn term. Mr Salt teaches ethics in RE, and will use his character as the basis for role-play work.

Patricia Hartshorne, a supply teacher from Derbyshire, also finds that the classroom offers a useful outlet for performance. Many of the characters in her one-woman show, A Bit in the Afternoon, are also used as a means of engaging disaffected pupils.

But the show itself is patchy and lacks momentum. While her Irish nun is genuinely funny, and her Marlene Dietrich impression spot-on, her characters need honing, and often fall short of the mark.

Genuinely engaging, though, is Cyril's Little Moments of Weakness and Strength, a play directed by Jeffrey Mayhew, head of drama at Christ's Hospital school, in West Sussex. Acted by Mr Mayhew and David Williams, deputy head of nearby Chichester comprehensive, Cyril's Little Moments is a poignant, understated portrait of a middle-aged man caring for his demanding, wheelchair-bound brother. A last chance of happiness comes through an unlikely romance, initiated over a carrier bag.

"It's a play for audiences of a certain age," said Mr Williams. "But some of my pupils are young carers, and have the same problems. I think I've learned a lot about them."

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: (0131) 226 0026,

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