Education: Sean fancies Tania: Lynne Wallis joins the audience at a boys' school for a theatre company's lessons in safe sex

Lynne Wallis
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:18

SEVENTY schoolboys await their first proper lesson in HIV infection and safe sex. Some wait eagerly. Most look bored. For the afternoon, the boys at Isleworth and Syon Boys School, Middlesex, are going to be watching the progress of the Boring, Boring and Bollocks Advertising Agency, whose task is to create a campaign to educate the public about safe sex.

Enter four executives from the agency. The out-of-touch, bespectacled account director is briefed on the campaign objectives by his female colleagues. 'We have to stress that HIV is not just passed on by gays,' says one. 'And that there is a difference between Aids and HIV.'

'Right then,' he says, with a clap of his hands. 'We could have a film called The Joys of Virginity. We could use Cliff Richard.'

Titters from the audience. The boys are interested.

Cut to the scene of the making of the film. Enter Tania, 15, who tells a friend that Sean, her boyfriend, wants to go 'all the way'. Tania really likes him but is worried about getting pregnant, and about HIV.

Caught in the Act Theatre Company has been playing to school audiences for more than two years, exploding the myths about sex and HIV that thrive in the playground environment of ignorance and adolescent fear. The play, Just Be Good To Me, is aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds. It works by anticipating teenage responses. 'The giggling must be got out of the way quickly,' says Jenny Dee, the 29-year-old director. 'That is the philosophy. We say, let's be one step ahead of them all the time.'

Double standards are illustrated by Tania's brother Adrian, 17, a streetwise disc jockey who drawls: 'Yeah man, this party was really amazing. Wicked. I hardly got no sleep last night.'

Tania moans: 'He never comes home until the morning and we all know what he gets up to, but that's OK because he's a boy.'

We meet boastful, loudmouthed Lee, who belittles the opposite sex. 'Jane, you seen that film Honey, I Shrunk My Tits?' he jeers. He is soon put in his place when he becomes a contestant in Go the Distance, a tacky gameshow that awards points for sexual technique. Lee is presented with a blow-up doll and told to chat her up. 'Er, hello, er, I really like you, will you go out wiv me?' he stutters. He grabs the doll and starts kissing it with a fumbling passion that has the audience hooting.

Tania fancies Mark, but he confesses he is gay. The pupils have been told they can walk out at any time if they feel uncomfortable, but their eyes are riveted on Mark as he says: 'Just because I don't wear a chiffon scarf and go around calling people 'luvvie'] I don't know why I'm gay. But I am. And I'm happy.'

Sean invites Tania round when his mum and dad are out. They both want to have sex, but Sean refuses to wear a condom. 'You can't feel nothing,' he says knowingly, having told Tania he has had sex before.

'What if I get pregnant?' asks Tania.

'I won't, you know . . .' mumbles Sean.

'You'll withdraw, you mean? That's unsafe.' Tania is adamant: no condom, no going all the way.

The plot unfolds: Sean admits he is a virgin after all, and he and Tania do have sex, safely.

In Hollywood style, the couple convey their passion with lots of tango-like head movements, arched eyebrows and puckered lips, while a sickly American voiceover says: 'This is a modern romance called safe sex. The tale of Tania and Sean. Young lovers lost in the maze of . . . safe sex.'

Cut back to the advertising agency. 'I like it, I like it,' enthuses the director. Rapturous applause.

In the 20 remaining minutes the audience asks questions. To save the boys embarrassment, the actors respond in character. 'What turned you gay?' is the first question.

'Well, I didn't wake up one morning and think, Christ I'm bored, I think I'll be gay,' replies Mark.

'Do you feel abnormal?' asks another.

'Should I?' says Mark.

Tristan Middleton, 24, who plays Sean, says the plays work because the characters are well researched. 'We have studied youth culture to a point where we know what to wear, how to speak, and how to gain the audience's respect. If you use language they think is just a bit naff, you've lost,' he says.

Paul Ritter, 26, who plays Mark, Lee and Adrian, says: 'We don't have many disruptive audiences, but when we do we usually handle it ourselves. If a teacher steps in to ask them to be quiet, we lose our advantage.'

All four cast members prefer playing to mixed audiences. Debbie West, 27, who plays Tania, says girls exert a positive influence. 'They ask more concerned questions. They are really interested and it's easier to get through to them.' And there are other advantages of mixed groups, she explains. 'One big lad was making silly comments, when this attractive blonde girl gave him such a withering glance he shut up for the rest of the afternoon.'

Jenny Dee, who founded Caught in the Act two-and-a-half years ago, describes herself as an HIV educator rather than an actress, and warns against groups setting up with no proper research. 'We are in a very influential position, and kids really respond to us.'

Other Caught in the Act plays target different age groups: one for 10- to 12-year-olds is called Kissing with Confidence, and another, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes, is for sixth-formers upwards.

Why do they think their approach works where others fail? 'We tell kids what they need to know but we give them an emotional reality,' says Jenny. 'The plays kaleidoscope with children's experience. With drama, their suspense of disbelief is immediate and they are prepared to accept that one minute I am 16, and the next minute, I am an HIV-infected mother.'

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments