Losers and winners at love

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The Scottish Youth Theatre's latest production is a sobering tale of sex and sexual disease, writes Brian Hayward.

Dying For It

Scottish Youth Theatre

Gilmorehill G12, Glasgow University, Sept 17-18, tel 0141 330 5522

Ryan Centre, Stranraer, September 21, tel 01776 703535


The irrepressible Jamie gets the funny lines in Dying For It. "Ah, chlamydia!" he says. "It sounds like a perfume you give your mother." But it isn't. It's a sexual disease you give your lover and it is on the increase in Scotland.

While there is a significant rise in syphilis, gonorrhoea and HIV in younger people, it is chlamydia that attracts the headlines. Last year its incidence increased by a third; this year the trend continues, with it up 16 per cent on the previous quarter in the three months to June.

At least one in 10 of the under-25 age group now carry the infection, and most of those live in the Greater Glasgow or Lothian area.

This is very much the audience and territory of the Scottish Youth Theatre, and artistic director Mary McCluskey, always ready to explore areas of concern to her constituency, responded by commissioning David Cosgrove to write Dying For It.

The play has been touring schools, community and arts centres this month.

At the beginning of its tour, at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre, the theatre was not full, but the response from the young audience was electric. They were hearing in public, out loud, the jokes and scandals from behind the bike sheds, after the discos, at the all-night parties. And the embarrassment and stifled hilarity of the Saturday afternoon audience became, I was assured, a deafening roar at school performances.

This provocative and in some ways dangerous script was arrived at in the modern manner. Work started last October, when the director, writer and cast got together to begin to generate ideas for the play.

"It's by far the best way," says Ms McCluskey. "The writer comes with ideas, but my job is to allow the young people to take the ideas where they want, in the way they want. I call it organic improvisation; growing the ideas in an unforced way within the context of the writer's concept. That way the structure is clothed with characters and dialogue as near to life as we can make it.

"Not all the young people who shared in the creative period were able to stay for the production, but those who did have the satisfaction of owning part of the work."

With the script finalised in early summer, a dozen of the more experienced and talented of the company's members - two of them still at school, the others at college or in their gap year - rehearsed in August for the tour.

The dialogue is mostly between twos and threes, except when the cast come together for some punchy party dancing choreographed by Carla Duggan.

The piece begins in the waiting room of the GUM clinic. This is not, as Jamie (Iain MacDonald, bearing a pleasing resemblance to Alan Partridge) is quick to tell us, anything to do with teeth, but the home of genital and urinary medicine. It is the one hard place in what is otherwise a world of foggy ignorance about sexually-transmitted infections and hazy understanding of the need for and practice of protected sex.

The play follows relationships within a circle of friends and acquaintances, made up of girls who do and girls who don't, boys who would if they could and boys who wouldn't, both heterosexual and homosexual. We watch relationships struggle and founder over disagreements about sex, often on the dissonant needs of boys and girls, and over confusions about sexual orientation. We see peer pressure operating on self-image and the shifting notion of respect, and always the cast have a beer or alcopop to hand to remind us how alcohol is a catalyst.

The production uses a scatter-gun approach, using disparate individuals with all sorts of needs and standpoints to spark off as many reactions as it can.

The plot-line is almost buried among the colourful incidentals, but the audience is confronted with at least two paradoxes to reflect on: the first is that the popular, sexually-successful alpha male is a killer and the second is that the promiscuous girl swaggers unscathed through her encounters while the virtuous virgin dies as a result of her first sexual experience.

Her funeral ends the play in a sob-inducing finale that sends the play-goers soberly and quietly on their way.

This concludes a remarkable production that successfully evades the traps of being a homily, a biology lesson or the dramatisation of everything you wanted to know about sexually transmitted infections but were ashamed to ask.

Afterwards, as part of the very considerable financial help from NHS Health Scotland, every school that books the show gets a free workshop on the topic.

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