Tuesday, 18 September 2012

NTS Double Bill

The Monster in the Hall and Yellow Moon share a director, a writer, an interest in the way that music can define identity and an enthusiasm for communicating immediately with the audience. Consciously made for ease of transfer - the sets are limited to a few chairs and microphones - David Greig's scripts may be aimed at younger audiences but they refuse to simplify or pander. The Monster in the Hall addresses the anxieties of young carers - including a plug for the support group in Fife: Yellow Moon fearlessly considers domestic violence and absent fathers. Yet neither play can be reduced to an issue: through Guy Hollands' direction, and Greig's straight-talking scripts, the vitality and fantastic plots emerge through the detailed characterisation.

In both works, Greig mixes up story-telling and more conventional theatrical scenarios: the four actors slip in and out of character, inhabiting fantasy worlds, commenting on the action and narrating. Motorbike chases, visits from the social services, montages of farm work, bizarre visitors from Scandinavia, brutal knife fights: all are brought to vivid life by the cast, who jump from mime to banter to directly addressing the audience. The rough mixture of styles, only occassionally noted by the actors in brief moments of comedy, lends the stories a playful immediacy and good humour, allowing some of the more outrageous plot twists to race past without becoming absurd.

Yellow Moon is the more consistently serious: the old Stagger Lee Blues becomes a leitmotif, as a modern day teenager gangster runs into the wilds to find his long-lost father. Accompanied only by silent Leila - her attraction to this sometimes charming bad-boy is only slightly developed, a rare lapse in Greig's attention to detail - Stag Lee risks life and limb only to discover that his father is as irresponsible as the son.

Although Greig's conclusions are spotlessly moral - Lee's violence is eventually punished, and he is forced to confront his own behaviour - a sense of fun pervades even the most dire moments of the adventure. The beauty and danger of the countryside is conjured through Greig's language and the challenges of city life, along with the weight of celebrity culture on the shoulders of the excluded, are presented. Yet no grand conclusions are drawn: Lee and Leila are victims of the pressures of teenage life, and their attempt to escape is doomed to failure.

This uncompromising vision, and the respect given to teenage problems, makes Yellow Moon a mature example of youth theatre. Opportunities for preaching - Lee's loutish ambitions or Leila's self-harming - are sensitively handled, and acknowledged as part of life. Because the play imhabits a teenage consciousness, some of the minor characters are only roughly sketched, or played for laughs, yet the loose format suits the rough and ready story.

The Monster in the Hall is both more ambitious in scale and lighter in tone. Duck looks after her father, who is suffering from MS. Between trying to negotiate a romance with a potentially gay suitor - he wants a blow job to prove he is straight, she wants something more sincere - and avoiding the apparent traps of a concerned social worker, Duck longs to become a writer.

Alongside Duck's tough reality and fantasy novel escapism, Greig adapts an almost musical atmosphere: the cast sing interludes and  are plunged into comic scrapes. The tension mounts and the Monster - clearly defined as a metaphor for those hidden fears but also a literal motorbike being fixed in the house - is eventually resolved into an asset.

This time, Greig is more direct in his message: the chaos of Duck's life is mostly her own invention, and the finale, when Duck finally reaches out for help, is a less complicated resolve. The slapstick fun, however, skates over the encroaching darkness of Duck's desperate attempts to be normal and, again, the attention to teenage detail is winning.

Both Guy Hollands and David Greig are obviously committed to a youth theatre that is not patronising, that encourages discussion but rarely gives easy answers. Hollands has drilled his actors into a vibrant versatility, and chases through Greig's scripts, never rushing but always energetic. Double bills like this are in danger of giving theatre for young people a good name.

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