Teen cast creates a dark drama

20th August 2010 at 01:00
An all-youth team of performers and backstage crew raises the curtain on 15-year-old playwright Niamh Francis's debut

"Youth theatre" can be a misnomer. Such plays may feature teen actors, but those behind the scenes are often past the first flush of youth.

Not so with The Mongrel, a play set in a dystopian future, which was penned, produced and performed by a small team too young to vote.

Writer and director Niamh Francis, a 15-year-old pupil at St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh, was inspired by a two-week summer course in 2009 run by Edinburgh's Lyceum Youth Theatre (LYT). This introduced the keen writer to the technical aspects of producing a stage show: make-up, costume, direction and backstage.

After the course she considered staging a show at the Fringe, but her parents suggested this was a little too ambitious - not least given the notorious cost of a festival run.

Instead, the basement theatre of Augustine United Church, just off the Royal Mile, was booked for afternoon and evening performances on July 23. Then Niamh threw herself into writing: "I wrote with that space in mind. The venue is a very small space and the audience looks down on the stage - it's quite claustrophobic."

Alarmed by rising support for the British National Party, she worked on the idea that an extremist party had gained power at Westminster. In her play, the Government rounds up and expatriates the "racially impure". Lead character Anya is the titular "mongrel": her Russian father means the authorities are hell-bent on arresting her, so she hides out underground.

On a stark set, Anya - played by Niamh's schoolfriend Lucia d'Inverno, 16 - sits under an unshaded light bulb. Cans are piled behind her and she leans into a rickety portable radiator for warmth, sharing space with an unrolled sleeping bag, a kettle and a pile of books.

"It makes Anya look very small," says Niamh. "I filled the space with many more props than she actually uses. That was deliberate. The venue produced the atmosphere and we consciously amplified that in the way we used it."

Niamh and Lucia, a member of the LYT, revelled in testing ideas without adult supervision.

Losing that safety net could be daunting, admits Lucia: "When there are adults, you feel like things are going to be taken care of, and if something goes wrong it's their problem." But it was also liberating: "You're seeing more of us - there's no one else there in between."

For Lucia, the play was a chance to explore new territory, with a lengthy monologue that takes up most of the hour-long play.

For Niamh, it was a chance to show her generation's potential: "A lot of people assume, because you're younger, that you can't do so much."

Niamh had to juggle writing with Standard grade, Intermediate and GCSE exams, which she did not find overly stressful, although she would think twice about taking on the same commitment with next year's exams. Lucia was more concerned about the clash with the holidays: "Everyone insisted on having a life while I was doing a play."

A self-confessed perfectionist, Niamh was still working on the last scene days before the performances. There were six full rehearsals and the two other actors - Lucia's fellow LYT members Tom Palmer and Hana Wade, both 17 - had days to grapple with the script.

The dynamic was different from other productions the team had experienced. "It was strange, because I had to find some authority," says Niamh, recalling innumerable tea breaks. "We would stop in the middle of the rehearsal and start chatting, then realise, `No, we've got to get on with this'."

Lucia, who has an agent and hopes to get into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, enjoyed working with a director her own age: "It was more of a real actor-director relationship than I've had before."

With help from fellow teenagers Kit Mackenzie - a technical "genius" who sorted out voice recordings and sound effects - and stage manager Adam Butler, The Mongrel was ready for its debut.

There were a few hitches in the matinee - although none that were obvious to the audience - but the evening performance went superbly. About 100 people came to watch, including family and friends but also some who bought pound;4 tickets after seeing posters.

One audience member, Anne Tomlinson, praised the "superbly professional" production: "It dealt with issues of immense current importance and never once sounded like a polemic - always like Anya's thoughts. Amazing! I do hope you can take this to a future Fringe."

Niamh, who would like to reassemble the team to make a film, says that it is not the size of the challenge that matters, but the strength of your team: "If you trust your people, then it'll be fine."

Niamh and Lucia's confidence has surged since the performances. Niamh says: "Before, I thought I might be able to pull something like this off, but now I know I can."

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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