Sexual politics in the surf THEATRE

Borders of Paradise Palace Theatre, Watford
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The Independent Culture
One figure who does not feature on the Devon beach that forms the setting for Borders of Paradise is a middle-aged female playwright with binoculars and a notebook, though it's said that Sharman Macdonald was inspired to write this new piece by the experience of observing seven adolescent boys surfing the day away in just such an ambience.

Indeed, beaches seem to have become to Macdonald what daffodils were to Wordsworth. At the Almeida now, in a run that has been extended by popular demand, you can see her funny and affecting The Winter Guest which takes place on and near the rocky, ice-bound coast of a Scottish seaside town.

Borders of Paradise, commissioned, developed and directed by Lou Stein for his swan-song as artistic director of the Palace, Watford, finds us back at the edge of the briny, but in balmy summer weather this time. And instead of offering an Ages of Man juxtaposition of different generations as the death-haunted Winter Guest did, Borders of Paradise trains its exclusive sights on the tragicomedy of incipient adulthood. A surfing party of English male sixth-formers are shown in contrast to, and then in contact with, a pair of Scottish schoolgirls who have come down to camp here for half-term.

Surfing doesn't sound the most promising activity for stage treatment, but Stein's beautifully acted production convinces you that this is not material that would have worked better as a Screen Two drama. For example, the symbolic manhood-proving nature of the risk taken by John (Tom Wisdom) in going out to find the biggest wave is communicated more strikingly because of the restrictions on "realistic" presentation. Looking like his mental image of himself, he is first seen astride his board in a lit- up slot behind the scrim and the on-stage action. Then he has to be imagined from the anxious, peering faces of his friends.

Macdonald's gift is for plays that depend on mood and texture, rather than plot, and which combine delicacy of sensibility with quirky comic earthiness of dialogue and observation. Lapsing into self-consciously poetic telegraphese at heightened moments, a number of the boys' speeches here feel uncomfortably straddled between direct speech and inner monologue. But the play has warmth and shrewdness, whether delineating the conflicting mixture of arrogance and vulnerability in adolescents, pinpointing the difference between male and female friendships, or recording the process whereby the social and sexual cohesion possible in a school community begins to look illusory as the gates open. Given the subject and the opportunity for rueful recognition, it would be a great shame if Borders of Paradise played to audiences in which there were fewer adolescents than there are on stage.

n To 8 April (01923 225671)