Theatre's seasonal lifesaver

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Merlin the Magnificent Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until December 26.

Beauty and the Beast MacRobert Centre, Stirling until December 31.

The Jungle Book Dundee Rep until January 9.

The feeding frenzy is almost over and with it the 10am Monday morning curtain-ups, the bin bags for the usherettes, the tinsel over the box office. Christmas may not stave off high-street recession, but it works powerful magic for theatre finance.

December is the month when schools beat a path to the theatre's door. The Glasgow Citizens, for example, sent out booking forms for Stuart Paterson's Merlin the Magnificent last May, though even that would seem like decorous restraint to some companies. The MacRobert in Stirling advertises next year's Christmas show in this year's programme.

Among the early Citizens customers was Stewarton Academy from Ayrshire. Yvonne Hannan, principal English teacher, prefers the Gorbals programme to the old-style "slap'n'tickle" pantomimes available elsewhere: "The Citizens does what I call proper plays, with significant dialogue and character interaction. Coming here is a fun trip for the first year. This term they have read a play; now they see how text is presented in the theatre. Afterwards they will be expected to produce something for their folio."

No hard task, with the Citizens fielding their top team of Havergal, Miller and Jenkinson, and Robert Carr's tartan Sir Hector to lighten the ancient battle between Merlin and Morgana-Le-Fay for possession of Arthur. Not that the girls are left out - Paterson creates some of the pluckiest heroines in the business. And teachers who enjoy a sub-text note Merlin's insistence on "education for all", only agreeing to teach the obnoxious Kay if Arthur and Gwen are included.

Bussing the three classes and supervisors takes almost Pounds 300, and the Pounds 5 ticket brings the total cost to almost Pounds 750. Derek Mathieson, the headmaster, takes a wider view of the educational benefits. "In the first place, we cannot invite theatre companies in. The school has no theatre, and to use the gymnasium would deny the PE department its major resource. Theatre-going has the social education dimension of going out in a formal group. This is important when you remember that some of these children are from farming families, making their first visit to the city."

Much the same virtue in a necessity was pointed out in Stirling by Anne Comrie, headteacher of Strathyre Primary, eight miles out of Callander, who took her pupils to Beauty and the Beast at the MacRobert Centre: "We have a very small roll, just 36 children. We cannot afford to buy in theatre companies. I prefer the MacRobert. It is only 40 minutes' drive and the campus theatre is so safe for the children."

For once, in fact, Strathyre Primary has got in-house drama. Annie Wood, the drama worker in residence who directs the Christmas plays, has designed a workshop that goes free to every school booked for Beauty and the Beast.

Two drama workers have been employed since mid-November in a tour that takes them from Edinburgh to Lochgilphead. Annie Wood has to charge schools for extra workshops, Pounds 30 in Stirling and Pounds 60 elsewhere.

One problem with Beauty and the Beast is that no boy can take the mask off. Stuart Paterson's solution is to show us the boy before we see the Beast in all his terrifying splendour of the Northern Stage Workshops' black and gold, horns and hooves. Angela Chadfield as the witch and Jay Manley as her servant Dunt roused the Strathyre hecklers. The communication programmes must be working; heckling everywhere has been particularly uninhibited this year, and the actors have been gratefully responsive.

It was Dundee's turn not to do a Stuart Paterson this year, so Anna Newell directed Neil Duffield's adaptation of The Jungle Book. The play's drawback is that Disney has passed this way, and there was plenty of proof of that in the paintings the children sent in as entries to the theatre's design competition.

Its advantage is that the major characters are furred, feathered and scaled, and theatre directors know that children of a certain age respond more warmly to animals than to people. Even so, the "tingle" moments at the Dundee Rep came when the lost boy returned from the jungle to his mother in the village. Much as the children enjoyed Caroline Scott's menagerie of jungle wear and the gormless buffoonery of the villagers, it was the human drama that seized them.

This should strengthen the hand of those teachers, and with every passing December there are more of them, who welcome the increasing number of "Christmas plays" available. Having spent the school year challenging the child's intelligence and imagination, it seems perverse to spend good money and a half-day on entertainment that does neither - children's television can do that.

If theatre is the arena where we exercise empathy, and at the Dundee Rep they were empathising themselves out of their seats, then characters and story have to matter. Though in a perfect world, you could have all this and the Krankies doing their ventriloquist act, which somehow sneaks into Pinocchio at the Glasgow Pavilion.

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