PLAYS / Anything but child's play: Fizzy Jelly, said Ken Campbell, was other-worldly. But could he persuade others it was the children's play of 1992? Sarah Hemming reports

'JUST SAY when you want me to storm out,' says Adrian Mitchell, with a mischevious glint in his eye. The judging for the W H Smith Plays for Children Awards may not reach Booker panel intensity, but passions are running high.

Mitchell, a poet and writer of plays for children, is inveighing against patronising writing for children. 'Three to five-year-olds deserve better - even Beatrix Potter would be an improvement,' he says. There is shocked silence. 'I'd heard Adrian was a kind man,' observes David Holman, a fellow children's playwright. 'He was - before he became a children's writer,' adds Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

From 700 scripts submitted in two categories (five to eight-year-olds and nine to 12-year-olds) for this new competition, 14 have made it on to the shortlist and into the hands of the judges now sitting round the table in a W H Smith directors' dining-room. Mitchell, Holman and Kelly are sweating it out with the maverick performer and writer Ken Campbell and Roanna Benn, the literary manager of West Yorkshire Playhouse (which initiated the award); the actress Susan Tully and the Blue Peter presenter Diane Louise Jordan have sent their apologies, along with their votes and some helpful notes based on the Blue Peter mailbag ('Children are even more obsessed with dinosaurs, spaceships and the environment than we can imagine').

They have four hours to come up with the winners and runners-up for the pounds 20,000 prize-money from the pile of (anonymous) scripts. Almost from the off, Ken Campbell is championing a bold rank outsider called Fizzy Jelly. 'This isn't a play of any known sort, it's outside genre; it's not written for five to eight-year-olds, but it's not written for any known form of humanity. It's not a play for minds to understand . . .' His fellow judges look perplexed. Jude Kelly steps in supportively. 'With any competition you're in danger of rejecting The Beatles or not recognising the new Beckett,' she points out. 'And Fizzy Jelly could be it.'

She is half serious. More than anything, the award panel wants to discover a Samuel Beckett who writes for children. But they'd settle for a Bill Oddie. Finding the new Beckett or Oddie is made all the more difficult by the wide range of the shortlisted entries - from an uncompromising portrait of life for Brazilian street-children to a drama in which the protagonists are clothes on a washing line. Whole new categories of play have emerged since scripts started arriving at West Yorkshire Playhouse a year ago: 'This is a 'frustrate-the-dog play',' says David Holman, knowingly, at one point. Given the diversity of material, Ken Campbell's method of sifting the shortlist seems to have been the most practical: 'I read all of them to page 13 and then simply decided which page 14 I wanted to read.'

The prologue over (in which each panellist has made a fevered pitch for their favourites), Act 1 begins with a debate of the plays for five to eight-year- olds. The panel strikes an immediate rock with the difficulties presented by anonymity. Should a well-crafted but less ambitious play gain points over a rougher play, even if it has more potential and might become the better piece if the writer is prepared to work on it? 'What if the writer was Harold Pinter who said 'I'm sorry you're not changing a word'?' asks Jude Kelly. Still, ambition is broadly agreed to be more valuable than polish.

Rex emerges as a front-runner, and the topic of egg incubation is hotly debated by the jury. A play about a little dinosaur who returns to Earth to search for his sibling, Rex depends upon a refrigerated egg hatching. 'Even infants know that eggs have to be warm to hatch,' says Holman, adding that logic is very important in children's writing. If they don't buy the logic, they won't accept the play; it is partly this reservation which means that Rex, although widely liked, is awarded only second place. 'It's simple and the ecological- environmental message sits a little bit awkwardly,' says Holman, 'But it's racy, it's fun. I think five to eight-year-olds would like it and they would like the dinosaur.' As it happens, Rex is second to none as, in the judges' opinion, no play achieves the exceptional standard hoped for and subsequently no play receives first prize.

Act 2 brings us to the eight to 12-year-olds and a scene of instant dissent.

'I thought it was smashing. Very good story, very energetic use of language, whacked along. And it was spooky.' 'I thought it was a pretentious writing style. It appears to be snappy but it ain't. Nicely typed.' 'I totally disagree. The person can write - they have worked very hard to get the effects in this play.'

In this age-range, there are several strong contenders and the arguments are hotting up. Of the main contenders, one is more fully realised; the other is bigger in scope. Both deal with important subjects, one on a domestic level, the other on an international one: Chomolungma focuses on a young boy fostered against his will, while The Lost Mum tackles the problem of the world's street-children. Both are highly admired, but Jude Kelly voices the worry that The Lost Mum might prove too depressing. Her colleagues leap to the play's defence.

Ken Campbell thinks not: 'It's not like those films that you judge by whether you're going to go and throw yourself in the canal after you've seen them. It's incredibly uplifting. I marked it off on a graph scale - up-down-up-down-up-down. The notion that it is all completely downwards and full of despair is not borne out if you get graph paper out.'

'Surely theatre, including theatre for children, should be extreme,' adds Adrian Mitchell. David Holman is becoming increasingly passionate. 'I would want to make a case for its humanity and optimism as against people saying that it's too hard to take. I would fight that idea. Our children should be put into the world where their contemporaries are - they should know what it's like. If it's done well, and carefully, that's what should happen in theatre.'

The panel cease fire to take the votes. Yet, whichever way they are counted, The Lost Mum and Chomolungma emerge neck and neck, count after count.

Adrian Mitchell attempts to force a resolution in favour of The Lost Mum with a personal plea, based on his considerable experience as a children's playwright.

'I took a child to see the Drink The Mercury which is a very moving play,' says Mitchell. 'And they could take it; they took it better than me. I wept - the children didn't weep. I think it would be the same with The Lost Mum.'

'What's Drink the Mercury?' asks Campbell, innocently.

There is a momentary pause.

'It's a play I wrote a few centuries ago,' says Holman, laughing. 'I'll drop it round to you some time]'

A draw is declared.

In the first W H Smith Plays for Children Awards the winners were as follows:

Nine to 12-Year-Old Category Joint First Prize: Chomolungma by Adrian Flynn and The Lost Mum by Michele Celeste (both pounds 5,000). Second Prize: Rosie No Name and the Forest of Forgetting by Gareth Owen (pounds 4,000).

Five to Eight-Year-Old Category No First Prize. Second Prize: Rex by Richard Langridge (pounds 4,000). Commended: The Incredible Edible Adventure by Lyndsay Thwaites (pounds 2,000).