Send them victorious;Arts in Scotland;Theatre

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Little Victories by Shaun Prendergast, performed by TAG Theatre Company

TAG-watchers will be taking a special interest in Little Victories, now on a 40-day tour. Incoming director James Brining has so far been playing out the programme he inherited; here we see the colour of his own coin.

He chooses a play that four years ago won the London Fringe and Writers' Guild awards, toured as far as Pittsburgh and Toronto, and then unaccountably disappeared from sight. Unlike its author, Shaun Prendergast, who becomes ever more visible, though sadly not in children's theatre.

Writing plays for children is a bit like putting a message in a bottle and flinging it off the pier at high tide. Childhood is another country, and most of those who come from there forget everything they ever knew, which is why good children's theatre writers are thin on the ground, and lamented when, like Shaun Prendergast, they go off and fritter their time away, writing extensively for radio, television and the cinema. Ah, well.

At least he has left us Little Victories, a tale told by 10-year-old Tony about his mother's new boyfriend, his new baby sister, and the girl he met on holiday. The brilliance of the play is that Tony makes us see it through the eyes of childhood, in the world where there are only two important actors, you and your mother, and the others merely walk-ons. Where the dialogue in your head is louder than the words other people say, and where play is what you have to do when things get really serious. Where you see only what you want to see.

Brining safely trusts the central role to Jay Manley, a skilled actor, equally at home in adult and children's theatre.

Hardly off-stage in the 100-minute performance, he balances the abundant farce, comedy, drama and tragedy with the same earnest sincerity, giving the production just the emotional control it needs.

He gets lovely support from another TAG stalwart, Catherine Keating, who treads the thin line this side of pathos in her futile fight with cancer.

"Gormless Gordon'', mother's new boyfriend, is cleverly masked by Keith MacPhearson. Brining firmly believes in the first law of theatre - "surround yourself with talent'' - and brought in Peter Baile (from Trestle and Quicksilver Theatre Co) to help with the mask work, a greatly under-used performance device.

Another valuable collaborator was David Goodall, whose music score is an inventive and enhancing commentary on the dialogue and mood swings.

If children's playwrights are thin on the ground, then so are critics, which is why companies greatly prefer to recommend themselves with comments from 10-year-olds rather than from columns like these.

So I'll do the same. Half-way through the TAG performance in the Drumchapel primary school, the secretary comes in to take a lad for his dental appointment. She bends down and murmurs his name. Then again, louder. And louder. In the end, she has to take him by the shoulders to break his rapt concentration.

This was real absorption, a time for him of heightened concentration and receptivity, a quality time in learning terms. This is how children's theatre works, mediating selected experience at an intense level to spectators who, like the rest of us, are largely the sum of their experiences.

What and when they learn in the country of childhood is their own affair. It is not the kind of learning for which the class teacher would be able to put ticks in columns afterwards, or improve with a project, but she will be no less certain of the little victories.

Touring until June 13 in primary schools, and Glasgow Tron, Edinburgh International Festival, MacRobert Arts Centre, Bellshill Cultural Centre and Dundee Rep. Tel: 0141 552 4949

Brian Hayward

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