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War stories and angels' kisses

"Everyone knows the Fringe is the real Festival," says Edward Wilson, artistic director of the National Youth Theatre, "that's why we come year after year."

We do August in Edinburgh and September in London. The bonus is that Edinburgh in Festival time is a wonderful exposure for our young people, as players and spectators."

You cannot doubt the NYT's commitment to Edinburgh. With a company of 56, three overlapping productions over 26 days, and three venues, August clearly exceeds September.

The longest-running of these three productions is at the George Square Theatre, where Edward Wilson himself directs Dancing at Lughnasa. This is Irish playwright Brian Friel in nostalgic mode, like Dennis Potter musing on Coward's "strange potency of cheap music", or more exactly, the memorable songs of their 1930s adolescence.

Dancing in the Dark and Anything Goes swing seductively out of an unpredictable Marconi radio in the cottage kitchen somewhere in Ireland, and the crooners bring desire and dreams to five sisters pinned, wriggling, to a life of chastity and poverty, in a land where it seems the men are always called away to war or to work.

The poignancy of the situation is doubled and redoubled by a narrator who sees forward in time, and can tell of squalid lives and deaths to come, and detail the deceptions they will suffer.

This narration is most sweetly spoken by Christopher Logan, one of the two Belfast people in the cast. The other is Caoimhe Harvey as Chris, the deceived, unmarried mother, whose flights of joy and pangs of jealousy and despair she accurately records.

Her jealousy is directed at Agnes, the dour sister whose reputation is for knitting gloves, but who dances briefly with Chris's lover. Tammy Mendelson, a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, has her best moment in those fleeting seconds of romance.

Friel shows us a world at a time of change. The girls' cottage crafts, with which they eke out their existence, are made obsolete by the new factories. It is 1936, and there is war, and rumours of war. It falls to the elder sister, Kate, to try to hold the family together as the old verities of society and religion are crumbling around them.

Rachel Stirling, of Edinburgh University, is splendidly schoolmistressy in the role, sedately breaking out in a little step-dancing when the Marconi emits an Irish reel.

A play with a small cast and a nostalgic air is not the normal fare for youth theatre. Edward Wilson says: "I wanted to show the full range of our work, and because so many of our members are girls, so many of them really able, it's important to find good work for them. But we are still doing large-cast productions, look at Oedipus and Kissing Angels.

The latter is another example of how the NYT operates. The company is created anew each year - auditions for the acting and technical courses will be held in Edinburgh and Aberdeen next February. The acting course always culminates with a performance devised by the members, and on four occasions these have gone on to become mainstage productions. Kissing Angels grew out of last year's course, co-directed by Maggie Kinloch, formerly of TAG and the Byre Theatre.

Youth theatre may be the last bastion of large-cast productions, but it is always the natural home of raw energy. This in Edward Wilson's view is a characteristic of Dumped, the third National Youth Theatre production in Edinburgh, here getting its British premiere. The author is Daragh Carville, a young writer, again from Northern Ireland, and the winner of the Mayer Whitworth New Playwright award.

The NYT has to be congratulated on making its full title - the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain - not a casual airbrush of grandeur but a reality.

Recognising that a London base makes for expensive travelling from Aberdeen and beyond, the company is looking at awarding bursaries to Scottish applicants who hopefully will be well represented among the 3,000 or so who are expected to apply again this year, in November and December.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" until August 30, George Square Theatre, tel: 0131 662 8740. "Dumped", August 5-16, Pleasance Two, tel: 0131 556 6550. "Kissing Angels", August 21-31, Chaplaincy Centre, tel: 0131 662 8882.

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