Christmas is the time of year when children's theatre traditionally comes under the spotlight. But while parents agonise over whether to book their little ones in to Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella, Oxford Stage Company is busy working on a cautionary tale of a more desperate nature - one in which there is plenty of talk of chasing the dragon, but not the sort that usually frequents fairy-tales. Early in the new year, the company will tour Junk, a stage adaptation of Melvin Burgess's controversial novel about the real dangers that lurk out there for young people.
Burgess's novel has won two awards (the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Award) and been shortlisted for another (the Best Children's category for the Whitbread Prize), but it deals with the sort of bogeys that most parents wish did only live in stories. In the novel two 14-year-olds from a small seaside town run away to the bright lights of Bristol. Here they run into under-age sex, drinking, stealing, pregnancy, prostitution - and the biggest spook of all: heroin addiction. It's daunting stuff, but John Retallack, artistic director of the OSC, was on the phone for the rights to stage the work as soon as he read it.
"I knew straight away that it just felt right. You don't often think that about a book; but I really felt that to have it in a theatre with everybody watching it together would be fantastic. A theatre is a great place for people to talk. I don't mean there will be debates from the stage, but it is a place where contemporary themes can be kicked around."
Although Burgess's novel is set in the early 1980s, its material is certainly contemporary. It is a very funny, very honest and very uncomfortable read. For one thing, Burgess reminds us that junkies can hail from any background. One of the runaways, Tar, is escaping from a violent and drunken household, but Gemma, his girlfriend, has nothing to run away from except a pair of overly protective parents and a general feeling of being bored. She ends up working in a massage parlour to pay for her heroin habit - and, if that seems far-fetched, only last week the papers told the story of a bright, middle-class teenage girl who died from a heroin overdose in Aberdeen.
What is so clever about the book, however, is that it doesn't lecture and, for a long time into the story at least, it isn't miserable. Quite the reverse, in fact. Its style - whole chapters written in the voice of the characters, so that you empathise strongly with them - is witty, immediate and cannily addictive. It is with a jolt that you realise that the novel has suddenly jumped several years and that Tar and Gemma are still nowhere, pinned down by their addiction. Burgess makes the fun feel like fun, but he makes the misery feel terrifying.
The very success of the novel throws down a challenge to anyone adapting it, as Retallack, who also directs, has discovered: "Melvin has described it as a cautionary tale, but he also said to me, `It's got to really be so exciting, and so sexy and so transporting.' So I'm trying to keep the staging as romantic and carefree as possible for as long as possible, because, believe me, in the second half, they have such a terrible, terrible drop."
The style that works so well on the page cannot be dropped on to the stage wholesale, either - the continuous monologues would be unwieldy and undramatic. Retallack has had to hunt out a "theatrical language" to complement that of the book. The first half of the play is laced with music and bursts with infectious energy. Gemma's guide to running away from home, for instance, is playfully staged, with all the kit spread out in front of her, as if she were a children's television presenter displaying ingredients for a cake. The druggy second half, by contrast, employs denser scenes and a more surreal, switchback style.
"The process of gaining the heroin habit doesn't take very long," explains Retallack, "but do you want to watch them jacking up 70 times? It's boring. Junkies are boring. So how do we deal with that on stage?"
If it is a challenge for him, it is also a testing piece for the cast, several of whom have to start out playing 14-year-olds (the actors themselves are in their early twenties), then age by four years and learn how to be heroin addicts.
"The drugs are the most difficult thing of all," admits Retallack. "You have to find your way into that. Tar's personality changes beyond all recognition, for instance - he virtually vanishes. The actors have spoken to former heroin addicts - and that is difficult, because you have to get over the voyeurism. And you can't just have someone come in and show you how to jack up as if you were doing Chips with Everything and you did a bit of parade-ground drill. They all have to have a phantom affair with the drug, really."
One of the more disquieting aspects of the book is that it does not shy away from the fact that drugs can make you feel good. But it also rummages around the whole area of addiction; it will be interesting to see who feels comfortable ordering their drinks during the interval. Even Retallack was brought face to face with his own addiction: he stopped smoking a few months ago.
This straight talking is certainly admirable, but is there any danger that the story might put ideas into the heads of the most impressionable teenagers? Retallack concedes that this might be possible, but, he counters, "It's better if the lesson comes from a book. It would have been better if Tar had read a book about addiction than had to experience it... I think the more that fiction and drama can get the taboo out of this and get it talked about, the better. In terms of what you can put on for young audiences, I think you can do anything provided that it isn't cynical. And Junk isn't cynical."
The production will draw useful attention, too, to this difficult age group. For while, particularly over the festive season, you will find plenty of "family shows" for the under-12s, the early teens seem less well catered for.
"The age group that the theatre most neglects is the 13, 14, 15-year- olds," says Retallack. "It's a sort of no-go area."
It is a gap that he has tried to plug for years and his work has been spurred on by visiting plays for teenagers in Holland that he describes as "some of the most exciting theatre I've ever seen - stylistically wonderful".
"I love making theatre for this particular age-group," he adds. "I wouldn't think of editing or moderating the material: as soon as you try to impose a style, or talk down in some way, you get stuck."
This time, though, the questions raised by the play will be closer to home than usual. Retallack has to decide how he feels about his own 12- year-old daughter coming to watch Junk. "It's quite a shock for me to think that I've said that 12-year-olds can come if they want - so I've got to let her," he admits. "It's hard, isn't it? Because we feel so protective."
`Junk' opens at the Castle Theatre, Wellingborough (01933 270007) on 15 January 1998, moves to the Oxford Playhouse (01865 798600) 20-24 Jan, then goes on tour to Bury St Edmunds, Liverpool, Dartford, Taunton, Huddersfield and Bristol (further details: Oxford Stage Company 01865 245781).
The novel `Junk' is published by Penguin, pounds 4.99Reuse content