Royal National Theatre, London SE1
Performance seen: 11 July, 2001

The loss of BT sponsorship has thankfully not put paid to the National Theatre's "Connections" seasons of youth work. The largest Olivier space is not given over to the strand this year: artistic director Trevor Nunn nipped out of technical rehearsals for The Relapse to open this year's International Connections season next door in the Cottesloe on Wednesday evening. However, as well as the Cottesloe additional performances are to take place this year both in the Olivier foyer and outside in Theatre Square.

The change from "National" to "International" is also significant. Connections was regularly seen to include youth productions from all parts of the U.K. this year's selected shows include the fine ensemble production Sunnyside from Belfast's Lagan College, already seen at last year's National Student Drama Festival but the 2001 bill also features not only British companies staging plays about the Jews of Salonika and the "dirty war" in El Salvador, but a group from San Francisco and an Italian company which has made a point of producing plays from the Connections portfolio: Sharman Macdonald's After Juliet was first staged here in the 1999 season.

The first of the two plays presented in the Cottesloe on Wednesday evening, Mari Binnie's Ticking from West Lothian Youth Theatre, marshalled some remarkable ensemble work from a mixed-ability company of 30 as they examined their own lives, both the everyday drudgery and their hopes and ambitions. Combining physical work with live music and projection, Binnie and the company both accurately fingered the oppression of too-strict supervision of "special needs" children "I can't help it; I worry" and "You can't make your own decisions" and took the mickey out of their own dramatic vision, dismissing a possible ending to the play with, "Enough; this is cheesy."

Helen Adams' Electric Halos, from Southwark's Blue Elephant company, revolves around joyriding both real and imaginary on a piece of waste ground in south London, as the regular hangers-out there reach the age where they "start fancying" and so disrupt the old boyhood certainties. Imaginatively staged, with excellent use made of elastic-strip screens, it was sometimes let down by sluggish pacing; snappier performance would shave off ten minutes of the twenty that the piece could do with losing. Nevertheless, a bunch of fine characterisations included the sisterly jealousy of Michaela Layo Jegede as Frannie, and Alex Xezonakis as the slightly too young to understand Reddo.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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