THEATRE / A short tour of the waste land: Fringe: Sarah Hemming surveys the new writing talent at the National Theatre's Springboards season

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The Independent Culture
TALKING to the Independent in a feature recently, Stephen Daldry, artistic director designate of the Royal Court, said that the subject he most often discerned among young American playwrights was fear. Based on the evidence so far at the National Theatre's Springboards season, one of the things that most concerns young British dramatists is waste.

In Meredith Oakes' The Neighbour (reviewed in this column last week) a young lad loses his life to a local thug while his neighbours stand by, too slumped to do anything. In Judith Thompson's Somewhere, the energy of a group of Liverpudlian school- leavers fizzles into sour realism about their limited futures. Both Oakes and Thompson write with a great deal of humour, but their evident anger at the waste of young lives courses through their plays and makes for eloquent, highly charged drama. It's great that the National Theatre should be staging such new plays; sad that the Britain these writers feel compelled to portray is one where care is worn threadbare by materialism and recession.

These playwrights are too interesting to write simple social tracts, however. Somewhere portrays the experience of the Eighties for a set of young people on a council estate; it also explores the dynamics of a specific group and grapples with the nature of hope. Her characters are delineated with enjoyment and precision - any school teacher would surely recognise them all. At the end-of-school party we meet the anxious-to-please Jonno (Mickey Poppins); the solid Barry (Ian Dunn); the hyperactive Kev (Karl Draper); the misfit middle-class kid Campbell (Callum Dixon) and the waiflike Clare (Elizabeth Chadwick). Thompson catches the jumpy aggression of adolescence in her edgy, witty script - she also threads in a nice running gag in the shape of a couple who are always snogging (Matthew Crompton and Nicola White).

Centre of the drama, though, are Lee and Dawn, local hard boy and tough chick (excellently portrayed in John Hannah's dangerous, wiry Lee and Katrina Levon's solid, defiant Dawn). As they size each other up at the party, the desire between them is almost palpable. They become lovers; but even their sweet nothings are unconventional. Strolling in what passes for a park, she asks: 'Do you remember when they built the wooden castle?' 'Yeah. We burned it down.'

But though Lee loves Dawn, he still manages to thump her - and lose her. The gap between aspirations and reality is ever-present in this play, and in the second act becomes the overriding theme. It is 10 years later, and two of the group are now in Amsterdam. Barry is working as a barman; shacked up with him is Dawn, rescued by Barry from sleaze and booze behind King's Cross and now working the windows in the red-light area. But when Lee walks in one day, Dawn's stability is rocked. Should she go with Lee, who offers her (uncertain) dreams, or stay with Barry, who offers her (limited) security?

Thompson's writing doesn't quite survive the change of mood between acts - some lines in the second act come over as trite - but she charts this barren landscape with passion and intelligence, and Polly Teale's pacy production (first shown at Liverpool Playhouse) is packed with superb performances. David Farr's Hove comes at the problem from a different angle: a devised piece, it is more elegiac in spirit, but it concerns the bulldozing of a seaside boarding- house by a redevelopment scheme. Clare (Rachel Joyce), is a businesswoman sent to spy on the house targeted for redevelopment. She takes up residence, meets and tangles with the curious loners, dreamers and misfits who inhabit the house. Finally, at a party, she produces a model of the house and destroys it in front of them.

Odd? Certainly - and elusive in meaning. One could guess at the boarding-house representing an England that is being eroded. But the show is more enigmatic than that: its strength lies in its disturbing images and its evocation of mood - at times it reminded me of the mournful, bitter mood that hangs over the end of Shaw's Heartbreak House.

Hove exhibits the problems of the devised show - the dialogue is sometimes flat, bumped up by portentous music - but it lingers in the mind and contains arresting performances (notably Rachel Joyce as Clare).

Similar concerns run through Cindy Oswin's On Air, produced by Scarlet Theatre Company at BAC. This neatly structured play for three actresses begins by focusing on three housebound, lonely women: Lesley, an agoraphobic; Lorraine, an obsessively tidy woman recently sacked from her job, and Marion, a depressive single mother. They are linked by the radio, in particular by Crystal Clear, who presents an afternoon phone-in programme. The hardbitten Crystal, unknown to them, is more concerned about her designer shades than about her listeners, while her resident agony aunt is a neurotic spinster.

Gradually, listeners and broadcasters swap roles, the housebound achieving a brief burst of freedom. Touchingly performed by Grainne Byrne, Kate Eaton and Helen Anderson, this is a witty, sad piece that draws attention to the strangeness of a society where people can be in touch with no one, yet have the whole world beamed into their sitting room.

The Springboards season continues at the National, London SE1 (071-928 2252); 'On Air' is at BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223).

(Photograph omitted)