The Musicians / Discontented Winter: House Remix
National Theatre, London SE1
Opened 7 July, 2004

Comedian Hugh Dennis used to impersonate a father who insisted on dancing embarrassingly to his children's records. It often seems to me that the most ill-advised moments in young people's theatre are when grown-ups try to be down with the youth. The opening night of this year's Shell Connections mini-season didn't exactly offer embarrassment, but I couldn't help feeling that Bryony Lavery was trying too hard with her piece Discontented Winter: House Remix (note the slightly but jarringly outmoded reference in the subtitle).

The Connections programme is a magnificent notion. Each year a number of prominent playwrights are asked to pen a piece for young people; these are then made available to schools and youth theatre companies, with the best productions selected for performance at the National. As well as the two pieces I saw, new work is on show this year by Snoo Wilson, Simon Armitage, April De Angelis and the redoubtable Philip Ridley, among others.

Patrick Marber's The Musicians is a delight. A school orchestra arrives in Moscow for a prestigious performance, only to find that their instruments have been impounded; then the hall's cleaner has an idea... Where Marber's plays such as Dealer's Choice and Closer are spiky and brooding, the teenagers in the orchestra say exactly what they mean, whether they're commenting on the Russian capital or guying each other. Both the solution to the concert problem and the morning-after coda are inspired coups of pure theatre (although it's amusing that the Castleford High School company are more ill-at-ease freaking out to The Who's "Pinball Wizard" than to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony). Most of this year's Connections performances take place in the Cottesloe Theatre, but an entirely different production of The Musicians ends this year's strand next Tuesday in the much bigger Olivier.

Discontented Winter: House Remix is a much denser, more self-conscious piece. It's partly a rewrite of Richard III: protagonist Ronan asks the audience early on, "Was ever pussy in this paddy pulled?" It's partly a good old class struggle, with a posse of street toughs and a cadre of patrician gels each kidnapping one of a pair of young Windsor-looking princes. It's partly a social satire, and partly a lampoon on modern/postmodern jump-cut deconstruct-and-sample youth culture, but the kind of lampoon that wants to have its cake and eat it. It's partly heaven knows what, with a vein of Star Trek environmentalism; and, with a human beatbox (the remarkable Hillz E) reciting mock-scratches of lines from Shakespeare, it's partly the authorial equivalent of Hugh Dennis's cavorting dad. Sir Frederic Osborn School demonstrate that energy and commitment can almost, but not quite, iron out the tangle.

However, the skills and dedication of companies never ceases to impress, and not merely in a "considering they're so young" sense. Congratulating their respective companies, Marber half-joked that in future he wanted only to write for Castleford, and Lavery was almost speechless with gratitude. Such responses are perennial during the Connections season; they're also sincere, and deserved.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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