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Theatre; Adult lust, teenage tenderness

"REPERTORY THEATRE is the traditional training ground for the future stars of tomorrow," proclaims the programme for this double bill. With its short rehearsal periods and the need to shoehorn the available performers into every play on the company's programme, rep offers an excellent schooling for actors seeking to develop a breadth of character and a firm grasp of technique.

Nowadays, unfortunately, a young actor is more likely to boast a fistful of fleeting appearances in Casualty and The Bill than a solid season in rep. To counter this decline in traditional repertory theatre, Salisbury Playhouse has launched the Springboard Project, which selects the cream of drama school graduates to work on two plays in a "mini-rep" environment.

The result is the juxtaposition of two very unlikely bedfellows: Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling and Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing - a tense Jacobean psycho-thriller and a 1990s comedy of blossoming gay love.

The discrepancy in the number of characters between the two plays means that the rep effect is somewhat lost, especially as three of the main actors from The Changeling - Irene Rambota (Beatrice-Joanna), Stephen Campbell Moore (De Flores) and Asa Cannell (Vermandero/Lollio) - do not appear in Beautiful Thing.

Yet this has the advantage of leaving Rambota and Campbell Moore free to devote their full energies to a searing portrayal of the blend of lust, devotion, loathing and violence that characterises The Changeling's central relationship. The air crackles when Beatrice and De Flores come together.

Alongside this, the subplot offers a rich comic counterpoint from Cannell in partnership with Rachel Ferjani (Isabella) and Ferdy Roberts - a remarkably versatile actor who manages to combine three roles in The Changeling with a part in Beautiful Thing.

It is in the latter play, however, that Roberts flowers fully, possibly aided by the fact that Tony is the only funny character. The piece, though, seems to pose far greater difficulties for the company as a whole: the actors seem more relaxed in the grown-up world of The Changeling than the pubescent passions of Beautiful Thing, and have a tendency to over- juvenilise the main teenage characters.

Beautiful Thing is Wedekind's Spring Awakening remoulded as a cross between an episode of EastEnders and a Harry Enfield obnoxious teenagers sketch. Unfortunately the script has neither the verisimilitude of the former nor the witty perspicacity of the latter.

The play's main appeal appears to lie in the fact that this is a gay coming-of-age story with a happy ending. While Ben Casey (Jamie) and Oliver Dimsdale (Ste) manage to inject a certain degree of gawky, broken-voiced tenderness into the central relationship, one still feels that they would be as happy playing cowboys and Indians together. The adult characters come off rather better, although Joanna Thaw is somewhat handicapped by the fact that Harvey's script for Sandra owes far too much to Angie of the Queen Vic.

Yet the Springboard project is both laudable and successful, giving training to some fine young actors and offering Salisbury's playgoers a more diverse programme than most provincial theatres can provide. And there is the fun of trying to spot the stars of the future. Or at least, to put names to the faces you see in The Bill.

Toby O'Connor Morse

In repertory, 01722 320333