Theatre: The future is red, white and blue

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CHOICE

ROYAL COURT UPSTAIRS

LONDON

CINEMA AUDIENCES devour new writing - the alternative, after all, would be incessant remakes and re-runs. Yet in theatre, new writing is deemed off-putting at best. Add the word "young" and you have a recipe for patronising attitudes and no box-office. So it is a genuine thrill to discover Choice, the Royal Court's Young Writer's Festival with classy direction, cracking acting, hot scripts and, in one case, the discovery of the year.

The Crutch, by 23-year-old Ruwanthie de Chickera, is a stern-eyed tale of a woman's journey from desperation on a Sri Lankan street, an example of the festival's wide reach. At the other end of the scale is 20-year- old Ed Hime's tragicomedy About the Boy in which father and sons Nev, Trev, and Kev try to sort out their feelings about women: a sort of men behaving gauchely. Hime handles hidden pain with a lovely light touch, his comedy has real zip and he knows exactly when to cut away from a scene. Director Rufus Norris elicits strong performances but the honours are stolen by Lee Ingelby as Trev who can fill entire scenes with virgin adolescent yearning or puncture a moment with blissful comic timing harnessing Hime's terrific line in bathos.

It is automatically assumed (why?) that Asian writers "should" deal with race. B22 places this in a wider context by focusing on a different kind of identity in Ranjit Khutan's avowedly sentimental study in nostalgia. The past tunnels through to the present as one of the two lads returns home after years at university.

Sexuality is generally a long way down the list in debates about racial identity and Khutan's tender corrective is timely and sweetly handled. It is unfortunate that the evening's finale handles similar subject matter and where Khutan shows promise, the stunning Four by 23-year-old American Christopher Shinn is the work of a seriously gifted playwright. Without a doubt, this is the debut of the year.

Shinn deploys the simplest of means to the greatest possible effect. He knows that what's not said on stage is as important as what is said. With the right structure - and thus tension - silence on stage is pregnant with possibility and words unspoken. Shinn's structure is so astonishingly assured that he can charge up atmospheres and tensions with breathtaking economy.

The balance of the play is so remarkable that although it pivots absolutely around what it is to be American - from going to the movies or driving on the open road to the colour of your skin and your sexual choices - you never feel you are listening to "issues" because everything flows through interlocked, evolving characters drawn with heartbreaking compassion. A nervous young white kid meets up with a married black professor who he has met via the Internet and takes off on a Fourth of July trip. Meanwhile the man's smart-mouthed daughter juggles the demands of an unseen mother and absent father while giving good phone to an uppity white boyfriend.

Shinn's real subject is emotional fragility - a daughter's need for love as she fights to break out of her cocoon of self-confidence, the boy's struggle for emotional and sexual self-acceptance - all of which simply glows in Richard Wilson's mesmerising production which features quite astonishingly detailed performances from a dynamite cast. Shinn's radiant, moving play has yet to be produced in the US. Thank God that British theatre is still able to take risks that can pay off as handsomely as this.

In rep to 19 Dec (0171-565 5000)

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