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Theatre: Back to barracks

ONE OF the biggest problems for the National Youth Theatre is finding material for its young casts, aged 16 to 21. There are numerous plays packed with meaty roles, but while the experience of working on characters way beyond your playing age is essential, putting actors too young for their roles on stage in front of a paying audience is a different matter.

Endless young writers have been inspired to "write about what you know about". churning out versions of what Joyce called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. However, few playwrights have taken the lead quite as literally as Neil Simon. After streams of smart, urban comedies he turned the clock back 40 years to write three autobiographical plays about his early years: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. With a cast almost entirely made up of young men undergoing basic military training, the second in his "Look Back Without Anger" trilogy is thus an entirely apt choice. Simon did his training in Denver, Colorado in 1945 but in Biloxi Blues he switched location to Mississippi. Not only out of his beloved Manhattan, we are also in new dramatic territory as, ironically, he almost abandons the machine-gun rattle of his two-liner formula: the automatic ricochet of set-up and punch line. But we're still in his trademark chocolate box, where even the hardest things have a sweet, soft centre. His heart-on-sleeve alter ego, Eugene, is a nice Jewish boy who dreams of becoming a writer. He's a gefillte fish out of water. Well- scrubbed David Nicolle has a naive, engaging warmth as he tells the story of 10 back-breaking Army weeks. He may not quite come across as echt Jewish (which may be a decision by the director, Ed Wilson) but the accent is vintage Woody Allen and he even has a gleaming, perfect-teeth, all-American smile. Thrown into Simon's carefully assembled bunch of types - the redneck (Sam Spruell), the "Polack" (Josh Cole) etc - Eugene tells us of their often comic exploits as they struggle to come to terms with enforced cohabitation, war, and strict obedience. Jack Pierce cuts an enormously impressive figure as the swaggering disciplinarian sergeant, his powerful voice commanding attention from the audience, let alone his raw recruits. Everyone seizes their opportunities, but the real stand-out is Matt Hickey as the nerdy Epstein. He may bear an uncanny resemblance to Radar from M*A*S*H but he has a relaxed presence and a quiet confidence which act as a still centre at the emotional high points. Let out on a pass, Eugene falls in love with Daisy - a nicely innocent and gently understated Claire Parsons - but it's really an all-boys show. The women get their turn in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and the season climaxes with a grand-scale Oedipus Rex at the Bloomsbury Theatre. At the very least, casting directors scouting for fresh talent should look no further.