THEATRE / A long march back to the front: The plum role of staging the first West End revival of 'Oh, What a Lovely War]' has gone to the National Youth Theatre. Robert Butler sits in on rehearsals

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A GIRL walks in carrying the bottom half of a leg. It's made of latex, clay and chicken wire, and the wet clay is all over her hands. She shoves the leg into the set, under a sheet of fibreglass that has been treated to look like the mud on the Western Front.

The actors on stage ignore her. They are in the middle of a question-and-answer exercise and the Mrs Pankhurst character is having a shrill time putting the pacifist case. 'What if you're invaded?' someone shouts. 'I'd sit down and discuss it peacefully]' she shouts back. 'What if someone murders your child?' Uproar follows. 'Come on]' 'That's irrelevant]' 'It isn't]' 'It is]' The questioner persists: 'I want to know what you would do]'

It's the fifth week of rehearsals for Oh, What a Lovely War], the first London production since it was originally staged by Joan Littlewood at Stratford East in 1963. The company lucky enough to be reviving the show is the National Youth Theatre. Earlier this year, Edward Wilson, the artistic director, applied for the professional rights. He was told that a London management was bidding too. The NYT is not a professional company. It's made up of students from all over the country who join for an eight-to-12-week period and pay for their own accommodation ( pounds 15.50 a night at a university hostel). But the London productions have too high a profile for them to get by on amateur rights.

The management that was bidding turned out to be the Royal National Theatre. Normally, for the NYT, that would have been that. But in a characteristic up-yours gesture, Joan Littlewood said no to a full-scale revival at the National Theatre and yes to a small-scale revival at the National Youth Theatre. She attached only one condition: for God's sake, don't turn it into a glitzy West End musical.

The NYT was launched the same year as John Osborne - 1956. Since then it has had only two directors (Michael Croft and Edward Wilson) with the result that its philosophy has remained more consistent than Osborne's. In a nutshell, the commitment and energy of a company member is as important as his or her artistic ability.

This was something that appealed to Lord Hanson - whose company, Hanson plc, last year gave the NYT pounds 1m of core sponsorship. 'What they learn,' says Wilson, 'is to be a team member. There's no place for prima donnas.' The shows they choose - which have lately included two revivals of Lionel Bart musicals - encourage ensemble work.

A striking aspect of the NYT is the ensemble it gathers around itself. You might expect a royal to be patron (Prince Edward) and a famous name to be president (Bryan Forbes). But the list of vice-presidents numbers not one, but three James Bonds (Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton). Helen Mirren is an old girl, and so is Kate Adie; while old boys include Derek Jacobi, Ben Kingsley, Daniel Day-Lewis and Timothy Spall. When the NYT has a big fund-raising do at the Grosvenor House hotel (as it did in 1990, raising pounds 160,000), the guy playing the piano is Elton John.

It needs the money. The NYT occupies a stately Edwardian pile in Holloway Road, just along from the Odeon and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. It used to be a furniture warehouse. Before that, appropriately enough, it was an entertainment hall.

In the workshop downstairs props are stacked away like old theatre programmes: there's the polystyrene Virgin Mary from Once a Catholic (1990), the golden Inca casks from The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1983) and a 12ft oak cross from Murder in the Cathedral (1989), which they took to Russia - the first production of the play there. The first night in Moscow earned them seven curtain calls and a rave in Pravda. The props for the new show are here, too: wattle fences lean against the wall and in the doorway hangs a ragged, hole-

riddled Union Jack. It's not just a company for actors: people train as set-builders, costume- makers, stage managers and administrators.

It's not easy to judge the OWALW company in rehearsal as it marches down across the battlefield in pierrot costumes, belting out:

Up to your waist in water

Up to your eyes in slush.

On the plus side, they give a raw energy and an unselfconscious immediacy to what they do. On the minus side, you can pick out wobbly notes, accents that drift across counties, and an easy-going attitudeto characterisation. The point is that many of the cast have not been to drama school. If you don't get the benefits of technique, you do get buckets of exuberance.

In the break, Ryan Philpott, who is training at LAMDA, sends off letters and photos to agents. (There are a number of people in the cast whom agents ought to see.) His friend Paul Williams, also at LAMDA, asks: 'Are you just sending photocopies?'

'Oh yeah,' says Philpott. 'They know I haven't got any money.'

After the Friday afternoon run - which Lionel Bart attends - the company heads across the road to the Hercules Tavern, where we talk about the First World War (briefly) and their future careers (at some length).

Each year 3,500 people apply to the NYT and auditions are held at 13 different venues around Britain. One person in this group saw it on a school noticeboard. Someone else's mother saw an advert in the paper, cut it out and stuck it on his desk. Another's brother was already in the company. Someone tried the year before last but didn't get in. It's a big step from the school play where they are used to being given top billing. Here, other people are as good as they are. Edward Wilson thinks between 10 and 15 per cent of the students go into the business, but everyone I spoke to wanted to be an actor.

Jeremy Granger, who plays General Haig, is reading psychology at Swansea. 'I'm doing the parental contract thing.' (Several others say 'snap'.) The parental contract thing means getting a degree in another subject so that you have something to fall back on. No one, apparently, wants to turn out like Withnail in the film Withnail and I. 'An actor who puts Deep Heat on his body in winter,' one explains, 'just to keep himself warm.'

Some of them look as if they won't be smelling of Deep Heat for very long. Scarlett Dyer, an actress in one of the other productions (there are three this year), was doing a celebrity slot on The Big Breakfast that morning. Her claim to celebrity status was that when she was three years old she was photographed holding hands with the then Lady Diana Spencer - the famous see-through skirt shot. Now Scarlett is 17, a student actress, and a publicist's dream.

Among the OWALW company, Shaun Roberts from Durham has played his first television role, in Kavanagh, a four-part series starring John Thaw. 'I spend the second half in a coma,' he says cheerfully. He went to a hospital in Birmingham to research that bit. Jeremy Granger is optimistic too. His turn could be next. 'I've got a crazy idea that someone might see me in the show. It might be now,' he says, drifting into a mantra-like rhythm. 'Might be now. Might be now.'

'Oh, What a Lovely War]': Bloomsbury Theatre (071-388 8822), Tues to 10 Sept. Sponsored by Price Waterhouse.