Plays for today

24th October 1997 at 01:00
A new collection of theatre pieces gives pupils the chance to explore drama that speaks their language, says John Somers.

The plays in this fat volume result from the bubbling energy of the 1997 BT National Connections scheme. Twelve writers created original, hour-long scripts for youth theatre, which were not meant to be studied, but performed.

The work was released to 150 companies who each chose one play. Directors met with writers and professional directors in workshops that helped clarify aspects of production. Following 10 regional theatre festivals of the plays, one production of each play was staged at the National Theatre in July 1997. Quite apart from the legacy of the texts, any scheme that animates youth theatre in this way has to be welcomed.

The plays fall broadly into three categories - the socially relevant (dealing with child abuse, racism, homelessness and youthful male aggression); those that explore a largely mythical world; and several that bridge the mythic and the starkly modern.

Liz Lochhead's Cuba embeds intense personal histories in the political idealism of youth. It uses an adult narrator to link flashbacks to a girls' grammar school during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when two friends tryto deal with the minutiae of life in the shadow of apparent nuclear annihilation.

Also intriguing is Bryony Lavery's More Light, a story of an Emperor's courtesans finding their power through eating him, thereby breaking the ultimate taboo. It is a powerful and suitably distanced metaphor for the forces that hold us in our places and the sort of iconoclastic action required to bring about change. This play has the magic ingredient of relevance without spelling out its messages for the audience.

Others fail to achieve this balance so well. Simon Bent's Shelter covers homelessness with a well-judged absence of overt political messages, but the drama is worryingly formless. This play may catch the bitter, shaming flavour of our culture, but it risks banality.

Jane Coles's The Ultimate Fudge tries a bit too hard. When a television reporter is sent to Nottingham to research the death of Robin Hood, she becomes involved with a real robber baron, which gives her the scoop of a lifetime. But, with the television world at her feet, she decides to quit and backpack around the world. The play is heavy with pointed metaphor.

Wole Soyinka's Travel Club and Boy Soldier concerns a school group delayed at an airport "somewhere among the South Sea islands" during a military coup. The school debating club, complete with blazers, feels like something from The Boy's Own Annual with echoes of Lord of the Flies.

Yet, if some of the incongruities can be successfully tackled, this is an excellent topic for youth drama. The military commander turns out to be a 16-year-old zealot and the debate between him and the boys is an effective vehicle for an examination of extremism and the effect of warfare on children.

Each play is accompanied by an introduction, production notes, key questions and suggested exercises, and an interview with the author, which gives insights into each playwright's motivations and imagery.

The production notes will help in the realisation of the play, especially where the staging is potentially difficult, as in David Ashton's The Golden Door, which presents a mythological underworld of witches and mutants, including Mamma Leech, who snaps the heads off human prey and sucks their innards out.

The key question sections read a little like comprehension tasks, while the suggested exercises work best when they are designed to lead the cast into dramatic action. In some cases, they are rooted in classroom-based analysis rather than studio explorations.

This volume provides a valuable resource for those looking for texts for young actors as a supplement, or alternative to interminable performances of Oliver! and Grease. The absence of a solid documentary drama seems an odd omission and, given the devising tradition of many youth groups, I'm surprised that so few of the plays leave room for fleshing out by an ensemble.

The collection should be enthusiastically received in classrooms, and with the next Connections already being planned, we can look forward to a further batch of plays in 1999 with an extension of the range of dramatic styles and genres.

John Somers is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and editor of Research in Drama Education

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