Mixed Up North, Octagon Theatre, Bolton

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The Independent Culture

The appointment of the Olivier Award-winning director David Thacker as artistic director signals exciting times for Bolton's Octagon Theatre. Thacker, despite his RSC, National Theatre and Young Vic credentials, is best known for such TV hits as Waking the Dead, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Faith. Theatregoers will surely be beating a path to the Octagon in what promises to be an unmissable season in which he revisits such previous successes as All My Sons, Ghosts and Comedians.

It opened, however, with a brave venture from Out of Joint, a new docu-drama by Robin Soans called Mixed Up North. Based on verbatim accounts from young people associated with a mixed-race youth club in Burnley, and directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it takes the form of an open rehearsal of a multi-cultural theatre project. A 13-strong cast explores the aftermath of the "disturbances" that erupted in the former Lancashire mill town in 2001. What fires up several characters is not so much the influx of fancy-titled social and community workers or the official, hollow promises of change, but the tiptoeing around of contentious issues for fear of playing into the hands of the BNP. Soans does a bit of tiptoeing too.

But slowly the drama begins to grip and when the real stories emerge, sometimes haltingly, sometimes harrowingly, they are never less than compelling. Trish, played by Judith Amsenga (alternating in the role with Celia Imrie) is the sparky senior youth worker, with Kathryn O'Reilly striking an authentically strained note as the director of the community play.

There's concentrated acting from Stephanie Street as the university-educated girl whose arranged marriage in Bangladesh dashed her perceptions of life and of herself, from Rose Leslie as a victim of both bullying and rape and from Claire Rafferty and Tyrone Lopez, doubling effectively as both teenagers and partners in a supposedly model mixed marriage. But despite the punchy, raw characters there's a lack of emotional texture in a play that nevertheless deals with sensitive issues in an often funny and touching way.

Touring to 5 December ( www.outofjoint.co.uk)