Will the real Slim please stand up

1st December 2006 at 00:00
to partner a primary school with the national opera company might seem an audacious idea, but it is one that grows in strength with every passing year.

Once again, Scottish Opera Education has started its schools tour of The Amazing Adventures of Slim McBride, and will be barn-storming school halls and gyms until next June. Waiting schools will be glad to know it is the mixture as before, with more bells on.

It is a well-oiled machine. Eight weeks before the actual day, the school gets the information and, most importantly, the music to be learned. There is sheet music for those who can use it, but at the SOE "try-out" at Rochsolloch Primary in Airdrie, music co-ordinator Mark Wilson preferred the hour-long teaching CD from composer Alan Penman.

"The CD leads you step by step through the whole thing," he says. "Some of the melodies and Spanish-American rhythms are so complex, and there is a time when P6 and P7 have to sing harmonies - these are the kinds of things teachers can find daunting. It challenges the children vocally. It's hard work for them. But it's another case of the more you put in, the more you get out. In the end, you have a sense of achievement."

Preparation finished, the day arrives and P6 and P7 are ready in their PE kit. The energy-charged SOE team of soloists, drama music workers and dressers give themselves two hours to teach the cast of 100 how the songs fit in the story, and the moves and gestures.

Environmentalism is again the theme. Allan Dunn, lyricist, has written the story of well-meaning but wrong-headed Slim, who fells part of an Amazonian rainforest to make a theme park. It has created opportunities for classroom work with the teacher's pack, but even more for costume designer Trish Kenny, who has excelled herself with the range of insect, animal and bird costumes for the rich South American fauna. The parrots and toucans catch the eye, but the llama romps home the winner.

Add to that the indigenous tribal costume, the mysteriously-clad Gaia group, the white-coated scientists with their magnifying glasses who come to study them, and the hordes of tourists in gaudy sun hats, T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, each with a pair of binoculars, and the performers were as proud as the audience was dazzled.

Led by the four soloists - Slim (Alan McKenzie), the shaman (Clare McGarry), scientist (Rachael Hannah) and newsreader (Simon Conlon) - and covertly urged on by the production team, the Rochsolloch seniors gave it laldy in their performance to the rest of the school, just as SOE had hoped and expected.

It was confident, exuberant singing. The juniors had been sitting quietly until headteacher Christine Greechan came in to check numbers. "Is Primary 1 here?" she asked with openly-feigned innocence. A loudly shrieked chorus of "yes". "Is Primary 2 here?" A louder shriek, and so on, up to Primary 4.

The Rochsolloch children speak up.

Then Miss Greechan showed me a letter she had pinned on the hall wall. It was from SOE. Last year, the company had been so impressed by the school that it had gone to the lengths of writing to North Lanarkshire, congratulating the authority on having the school that, in all its years of touring, had given the most outstanding response. As a reward for merit, the company agreed to use the school for this year's try-out.

Ms Greechan was delighted. "We are a traditional school, but we have talented children and an enthusiastic staff," she said. "We want our children to have the confidence to achieve, and music and drama are ideal for that. Scottish Opera push them to achieve something worthwhile. I don't care how much it costs, I'm determined to have them every year. The company is fabulous and I recommend it to anyone."

* Scottish Opera Education

0141 248 4567

Tour dates

Autumn term

Scottish Opera Education will tour Slim around schools in North Lanarkshire, Perth and Kinross, East Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Highland, Moray, Midlothian, Fife, East Renfrewshire and Dumfries and Galloway until December 8.

Spring term

January 22-March 30, 2007

Summer term

April 18-June 27, 2007

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