`Your actress was great. But it's the boys that I'll remember'

Six years ago Britain's inner-cities erupted in riot. Now the riots have reached the London stage, and Nichola McAuliffe is playing the cast of thousands (or 19, to be precise).
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Scene 1: London, July 1997. The actress Nichola McAuliffe stands in a dusty church hall somewhere in Waterloo - a tall, leggy figure in black combats with blonde bobbed hair. Words tumble from her lips, not in an intense way, but rather as an athlete loosening up muscles that have not been much in use.

There's a shuffling of papers. Annie Castledine, the director, flicks through scripted pages, yet never takes her eyes off the performer. McAuliffe is rushing now, but still testing the ground. Her husband, Don, looks on, chewing meaningfully on a cigar - "our testosterone adviser," quips writer Bryony Lavery.

Sphinx (formerly the Women's Theatre Company) is back in town with a new show, Goliath, taken from - or rather "inspired by", as the all-female collaborators prefer to describe it - journalist and writer Bea Campbell's painstakingly brilliant account of the riots that erupted across the inner- city estates of Cardiff, Oxford and Tyneside in 1991.

This rough-hewn rehearsal - a tiny jog round the block, you might say, after a marathon regional tour - is but the prelude to the company's last- lap sprint into West London's tiny, but influential, Bush Theatre, where McAuliffe - inhabiting the souls of no less than 19 different characters- will once again pit herself against the play's cosmic forces of annihilation.

An actress of prodigious versatility, for whom Arnold Wesker especially devised his Annie Wobbler trilogy a decade or so ago (although she is probably now best known for playing Dr Sabatini in the medical sitcom Surgical Spirit), McAuliffe here supplies a one-woman cross-section of a Britain riddled with disillusion, division and mutual incomprehension, as she singly impersonates a 19-strong cast-list that ranges from teenage joyriders, grieving relatives and onlookers, via assorted social workers and various arms of the law, to a Godly council-estate resident, a West Indian rapper and a Punjabi shopkeeper lamenting the loss of his business.

When Goliath toured the country in the spring, it drew universal praise from first-time theatre-goers, many of whom came from just the kind of inner-city estates concerned, and knew only too well the realities depicted in the play. It even met with approval from the police, one of whom told McAuliffe, "This says more in two hours than we've managed in three years."

Scene 2: Warwick Arts Centre, April 1997. "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars... This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

And here's an irony. As the light rises on Kendra Ullyart's crumbling greenhouse-gazebo, amid the sounds of smashing glass and roaring helicopters, Elgar rumbles out and John of Gaunt delivers his vision of England's lost greatness.

But really, there's no mystery here. For isn't patriotism the most perfidious of emotions, lingering on absurdly in the most anachronistic of moments? For a show that manifestly fulfils Gaunt's prophesy - "this dear, dear land... is now bound in with shame" - the play's opening image is entirely fitting, irony and tragedy locked in terminal embrace.

Scene 3: Britain's inner cities, 1992. Bea Campbell starts scouring the streets, trying to make some sense of why Britain's "communities" - a word, she has argued, that the riots rendered problematic - turned in on themselves. Now, speaking down the telephone on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, she recalls, "These were events that I didn't understand at the time when they happened." It was only after she had trailed around, talking to hundreds of people, that "a nuanced, complicated, sometimes suicidal picture emerged of the lives of these young men" - lives that she felt deserved to be granted some respect, not out of sentimentality but in order to understand and thereby discover causes. Understand more, condemn less - to invert John Major's famous dictum.

"Politically we live in a time of commitment to condemnation in both our major parties," says this persistent cage-rattler. Goliath, the book, emerged out of her investigations, her hours of sitting in court, listening to the stories of these pale, silent, condemned youths.

Scene 4: and so to the present day. It was two years ago that the storytelling drive of Bea Campbell's book first attracted the attentions of Sue Parrish, Sphinx's artistic director. It struck her that Goliath might well be suitable for dramatic treatment, and that Bryony Lavery, an award-winning playwright, might just be the woman to engender it.

McAuliffe came on board, and Lavery went away to pummel Bea Campbell's prose into potential performance material. "Our starting image," she recalls, "was of a boy rising dead from a wrecked car - an image of wasted youth."

McAuliffe, for her part, remembers that the piece, as it grew, repelled old-style monologue. "We realised that we couldn't have `arias', people just standing, Chekhov-style, talking about the trees."

Not satisfied with simply waiting around for her lines to arrive, McAuliffe embarked upon her own investigative journey, to listen and talk and tape and finally become, as far as she was able, the real men and women who lived and grieved, and whose lives and griefs Campbell's book had documented.

Scene 5: Enter Annie Castledine. Castledine, who two years earlier had successfully staged Marguerite Duras's India Song for Sphinx at the Theatr Clwyd, is a woman with a mission: "I'm obsessed," she says, "with how far we can push theatre vocabulary in narrative terms through one performer in a theatre space; the dynamic between that performer and audience, and how far an accomplished performer with huge skills can transport us into a variety of characters and enable their voices to be heard."

Castledine admits to being gobsmacked by McAuliffe's "sheer hard work and absolute stickability". McAuliffe, for years fascinated by criminal psychopathology, talks of wanting to "beat the lie detector" in actually becoming the characters she plays. "All points of view have to be understood," adds Castledine gravely.

And that really is the essence, and the cumulative irony, of Goliath: the young, disenfranchised men of Britain - and some of the women but, more intensely, the men - anatomised by a group whose feminism is so manifest it isn't even up for discussion.

"We didn't want people to come out saying, `Wasn't that clever', but rather, `I had no idea these people had lives like that'," says McAuliffe.

She had her reward. One evening during the spring tour, a woman member of the audience came up to Annie Castledine at the end of the performance and said, "Your actress was marvellous, but it's the boys that I'll remember."

"She had in some way," says McAuliffe, "imagined more than one person on that stage." No actor could ask for a greater compliment.

All the same, the experience is a sobering, shattering and important one. The police are coming, again, to the Bush. "It's changed lives," they report to McAuliffe. The Sphinx team wonder if the London performances will draw in, as elsewhere around the country, those caught up in similarly besieged situations. There is general agreement that, in the past five years, circumstances have not changed much and that riots are just waiting to happen again (an article in last Saturday's Daily Mail, citing a new LSE report, covered much the same ground as Campbell, predicting a bleak future ahead for inner-city communities).

Cambell herself is none too optimistic, but hopes the book and now the play will highlight the resilience and stamina of people "who are routinely ignored, routinely maligned". On one thing she is very clear. "You can't have a study of criminology without a study of masculinity. Historically, masculinity has been erased from the account. All we've done is to look at the subject and make sure he's there"n

`Goliath' is at the Bush Theatre, London W12, from 23 July to 16 Aug. Booking: 0181-743 3388

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