Theatre: Adolescence - it's a difficult age to stage

TRADITIONALLY, teenagers on-stage are zombies. They slump on sofas, grunt unintelligibly and only listen to what's on their Walkmans. If you want to know what it is like to be 14 - or if you're 14 and want to see life reflected on stage - the Oxford Stage Company's production of Junk is a stark corrective. Melvin Burgess's disarmingly frank novel won two awards, hit the headlines because of its subject-matter, and went straight into schools as a "text" for teachers and a "resource" for Drug Educational Officers. Now it's on tour.

In this picaresque tale, adapted by director John Retallack, Tar and Gemma run away from home, find a surrogate family among anarchists, drift from one squat to another, take heroin and get into trouble. Tar enters a detox centre in Weston-Super-Mare, Gemma works as a prostitute in a massage parlour. They have a child and split up. Tar has two love affairs - with Gemma and with drugs. By the end, only one of these looks permanent.

The most suspenseful aspect of Tar and Gemma's downhill slide is wondering at what point the authorial finger will start to wag. If anything, it isn't the author and adapter, but the audience - a mix at the Oxford Playhouse of adults and teenagers - whom you sense muttering don't- do-it. Burgess and Retallack are daringly reticent.

At the start, leaving home looks like a bright-eyed adventure for anyone with a bit of gumption. Gemma provides a cocky step-by-step guide: you nick Dad's credit car and PIN number, post a letter telling them you've gone, and hop on the bus to, in this case, Bristol. Emma Rydall plays Gemma with a puckish self-centredness, reaching out for a tougher personality as she ditches her homely denim jacket for black miniskirt, black tights, black eyeliner and black lipstick.

Dan Rosewarne, who plays her boyfriend, Tar, already has a black eye. He's leaving home because his dad beats him up. Rosewarne's Tar has a loyal lugubrious charm - if he's not careful, he'll find accommodation in a stray dogs' home. He loses that amiability when his addiction kicks in, his confidence goes, and he turns shifty.

Retallack's involving if overlong, production never escapes its origins as novel. It slows up when everyone takes drugs (as dull to watch on stage as it is in life) and cannot match the novel's lively shifts in perspective, where characters narrate their own chapters. It's also short on atmosphere - the catch-all set of sofa, telephone box and doorways only fleetingly suggests Bristol in the 1980s. When you have a cast of seven, it's tough staging a punk concert.

Thanks to a Lottery award, Hampstead is putting on five new plays over nine weeks in a reconfigured three-sided auditorium. Terms of Abuse is a first play by their writer-in-residence, Jessica Townsend. An ex-journalist, Townsend has taken one aspect of the Fred West case - the psychological damage done to the first victim, who managed to escape. Serial murderers take time to develop their taste, Detective Inspector Patterson tells Mandy: "You were his practice run."

Terms of Abuse is an explicit play, but it could do with being a lot more explicit in one area: plot. Townsend splits the central character of Mandy and through the play the two selves journey towards one another. The older Mandy, played with a sharp flightiness by Suzan Sylvester, smokes Embassy and drinks Blue Nun and sells her story to a smooth-talking journalist (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) in a corduroy suit. These scenes are intercut with the young Mandy going to discos (soundtrack: Rod Stewart, Tom Robinson and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive") and hanging around street kerbs. In a strange parallel with Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, in which the older and younger AE Housman meet on a bench by the River Styx, the older and younger Mandy confront each other in the flat, dance, drink and swallow pills.

Townsend has a talent for constructing luridly uncomfortable scenes; no doubt a successful career beckons, writing crime for Carlton. On the sofa, the journalist goes down on the older Mandy while she keeps telling her story. As the Detective Inspector, the grey, level Dermot Crowley brings welcome poise to Julie-Anne Robinson's otherwise hectic and uneven production. When he cross-examines Mandy, Crowley slips into the West Country voice and actions of the murderer. We watch him penetrate the young Mandy (Emma Bird) with tissues and a pair of pliers. When that memory scene is over, the older Mandy accuses Crowley of having an erection. It's a dodgy piece of writing on two counts. It's a big theme, the salaciousness of a copper, and it's not given enough time or attention for us validate it one way or the other. And as a physical observation, we can see for ourselves it isn't true.

Philip Ridley wrote the script for the film The Krays as well as The Fastest Clock in the Universe at Hampstead. He has now written a trilogy of plays about the healing power of storytelling. The first one, Fairytaleheart, for nine-year-olds and over, has Kirsty running away from her 15th birthday party and taking refuge in a community centre. Here she meets 15-year- old Gideon. In Ridley's cunning piece of advocacy for theatre (which he himself directs) Gideon draws Kirsty into a fantasy world, which he is creating at the centre, that leads her to confront why she ran away from home. A story about kings, queens and princesses unlocks Kirsty's resentments against her father's new girlfriend. In sequinned dress and fake fur, Victoria Shalet plays a runaway daughter with a gauche apprehensiveness while with dreadlocks and paint-splattered trousers, Zoot Lynam attractively introduces her to a whackier, new-age approach to life. Ridley proves the powers of storytelling; he also proves the power of bodily functions. If you want to get a big laugh with a schools' audience, just mention "snot".

'Junk': Liverpool Everyman (0151 709 4776), to Sat; then touring. 'Terms of Abuse': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to Sat. 'Fairytale Heart': Hampstead NW3 (0171 722 9301), to Fri.

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