The international aspect of the National Theatre's youth festival is now so firmly established that it doesn't need to be flagged in the title any more; under new sponsorship, it's simply Shell Connections. This year sees fourteen performances of ten specially commissioned plays, including companies from Ireland and Australia and scripts from Finland and Norway.
One oddity persists, though. The season has always been a celebration of the professionalism and high standards of achievement that young people's companies attain, and yet comperes for the double-bills presented each evening continue to resort, as comedian Gina Yashere did on Wednesday, to panto-style warm-up routines that have the opposite effect, of infantilising the audience.
I must admit to finding it agreeably ironic that Yashere's routine of souping us all up to frenzied applause was followed by the most inappropriate play possible, Purple by Jon Fosse. The Norwegian playwright may have heard of humour, but he clearly doesn't think it will ever catch on. As a no-hope rock band rehearses in the dank cellar of a disused factory and a love triangle is never quite articulated, the occasional chuckles largely come from our embarrassed recognition of teen awkwardness. Fosse, in David Harrower's translation, captures the broody, repetitious nothingness aspect of adolescence well, as does the Lyceum Youth Theatre of Edinburgh: Ben Clifford's curtains of hair hanging over his face add to the detachment as he plucks away at an irritating two-chord sequence on his guitar. Unfortunately, like the music they're playing, the young Scots' performances never quite blare convincingly or aggressively enough on the few, brief occasions when blaring is required.
Fosse's four-boys-one-girl configuration suggests a possible lack of thought about the demands of youth theatre pieces. In contrast, Maya Chowdhry's The Crossing Path bursts all over the Cottesloe stage with a cast of 22 – the number of cards in the Major Arcana of a Tarot pack. Everybody gets to dress up and throw shapes as young Rhiannon and her associates get lost in a night forest where worlds overlap, but the content is a mish-mash of mysticism, ritual, ecological tub-thumping and miscellaneous "yoof" stuff. In theory, there's all sorts to get your teeth into; in practice, as the Samuel Whitbread Community College from Cambridge found despite their laudable efforts, there's too little to get a firm grip on.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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