Memories that you can stomach

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Hopscotch, as they say, needs no introduction. The hugely popular theatre company has joyously rampaged through primary schools for the past 20 years and, even though in recent years the leadership has changed, the company has kept to its winning formula - except in one crucial detail. Recently, it has edged away from educational drama towards theatre-in-education.

This news was never likely to make the front pages, but educationists may sigh with relief that a company, always prodigal in its energy and high spirits, has at last repented of leaving its audience with little more than happy memories. So with the tour of Stephen's Expanding Stomach, directed by Morag Stark, there are teaching materials to accompany the production.

As the title hints, this is Hopscotch on obesity, eating disorders and healthy diets. Our anti-hero is Stephen, training for the school cross-country on crisps and other familiar but lightly disguised junk-foods. His appetite, as much as his quarrelling with his mother and his bullying friends, has audience appeal, and Liam Lambie knows how to play this for all it's worth. He does a fine line in melancholy comedy, and would be a shoo-in, come pantomime, for Idle Jack.

The other eight roles are shared by the three actors. Multi-role is another Hopscotch trademark, and part of the hectic pace they set themselves and their audience. Of Toni Frutin's three costumes, her "Mum" is the one that matters most. Playing the only un-caricatured role in the entertainment, she anchors the play in some kind of reality, as well as emphasising the pre-eminence of the mother as (mostly) the shopper and the cook.

In an imaginative leap, writer Raymond Burke takes us inside Stephen's stomach, to ask the inner man. In this wildly surreal episode, which company and audience take in their stride, Paul Kozinski has some of his best moments. He has already been a mercifully uncaricatured teacher; now as Charlie Heartbeat he is heartiness personified.

Similarly, Richard Gray as Moano, conveniently short for Monosodium Glutamate, is a memorably melodramatic villain, and if the children go away making that connection, maybe that is enough. But this is the kind of detail that lies at the heart of the Hopscotch dilemma. They sail by two fixed stars. They prize the accuracy of their comprehensive information and they insist on playing to the whole school.

Inevitably, it is a zig-zag course. Their research and accuracy have always been impeccable - factually, some of their historical entertainments have been near Highers level. But given their brief, the Hopscotch writers have to re-write Wikipedia as vaudeville, and work the pedagogy as pantomime.

The one-size-fits-all whole-school performance is popular with the teachers, not least because of the logistical convenience and the whole-school bonding experience it offers. Much of the material goes over many of the little heads, but which of us ever understands everything at the theatre? Nevertheless, questions of genuine emotional involvement and age-group targeting are never far away.

I saw the tireless quartet at Balornock Primary in Glasgow, organising their theatrical riot for more than 300 children, most of whom were only too happy to put their hands up to answer the questions, or yell their choice when the actors offered them good food or bad food for their supermarket trolley.

It seemed the performance and the graded teaching materials had been put to good use.

T 0141 440 2025.

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