Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
12 July, 1999

The third and final two-year cycle of BT National Connections has just ended. Some 150 school and youth productions of ten specially commissioned plays (by writers ranging from Alan Ayckbourn to Winsome Pinnock) were filtered through a series of regional selections until a dozen groups' shows were invited to appear at the National Theatre. Despite my own continuing involvement in the area (through the unrelated annual National Student Drama Festival each Easter), I found myself quite unprepared for the level of commitment, dedication and ability shown by the companies on the evening I attended... not least, as award presenter Fiona Shaw noted, in simply making themselves heard so easily in the notoriously unfriendly acoustics of the Olivier Theatre.

Both plays on show on Monday 12th Christina Reid's The King Of The Castle and Sharman Macdonald's After Juliet had already been seen (although not by me) in other productions during the previous week. Methody Drama of Belfast, however, brought an undeniable local sensibility both to the language and the social nuances of Reid's play concerning the legacy of war and the misunderstandings of childhood. Philip Mulryne excelled in the difficult role of simple-minded, shellshocked Arthur, with Avril Rodrigues's mother-character as the mandatory anchor of common sense. Methody's director, Joan McPherson, died before she could see her charges on stage at the National; the extent of her inspiration clearly shone through every aspect of the production.

The company from Strode's College, Egham, prefaced their play with a video montage incorporating archive news footage and purpose-shot material (on the school playing fields) to place After Juliet in a particular social and tribal context. Macdonald speculates on events between the feuding Montagues and Capulets after the close of Shakespeare's play, and in particular on the determination of Rosaline Capulet (Romeo's original beloved) to spurn the attentions of Benvolio Montague in her hunger for revenge. Director Donna Savery hit on a simple, stark device to differentiate the families: the Capulets were punks, the Montagues New Romantics. Macdonald's concentration upon the female side of the story was reflected in the strength of performances, with Lydia Saunders's Rosaline and her Capulet punkettes outshining their dandy highwaymen antagonists. However, where Methody had a kind of freedom to bring their gifts of instinctive sympathy to bear on relatively simply written characters, Strode's plainly had to work much harder to convey the emotional and intellectual complexities of Macdonald's piece: the air of effort given off by the latter company was both more impressive in terms of assiduity and slightly off-putting in that the players never really seemed at ease in the story. First and foremost, though, both companies did more than full justice to the evening's status as a celebration of the stimulus to scores of companies given not just in the course of this season but by the National Connections programme to date.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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