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Newbury Youth Theatre - Skellig

23rd July 2005.

This is the Newbury Weekly News review.

Magic moments

Newbury Youth Theatre: Skellig, at The Corn Exchange, on Saturday, July 23. The production goes on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from Monday, August 22 to Saturday, August 27 at The Quaker Meeting House

Newbury Youth Theatre, now in its 21st year, is one of the area's great success stories. Skellig will be the 10th consecutive production to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: a fantastic achievement by any standard, and a tribute to artistic director Robin Strapp.

This production showed once again what Newbury Youth Theatre does best: it takes a play with lots of meat; it uses simple, adaptable props which illuminate but do not dominate; and it allows the content and the actors' devised approach to do the talking.

Directed by Amy Trigwell and evocatively lit by Steve Smith, Skellig speaks of reality and dreams: how they interact; how they change as they are remembered; how childhood and growing up are a mix of both. Myth and magic are here: Icarus, Persephone, and William Blake, who saw angels in his garden.

Michael is a shy, sensitive youngster, an outsider at school. His family has moved into a crumbling house, full of whispers and strangeness. His baby sister has arrived early and is ailing with a heart complaint: "They say shoulder blades are where her wings had been," her mother says. "Perhaps that's why she has so much trouble staying here."

Michael meets a white-faced, hunch-backed, intense old man. Is he the person who used to live in the house? Is he a tramp? Is he real? Is he dead? Probably not, since he is addicted to numbers 27 and 53 on the Chinese takeaway menu, washed down with aspirin and brown ale, "the sweetest of nectars", he says.

Fatherless Mina is taught at home, a walking, talking advert for de-schooling. It takes her intuitiveness and imagination to recognise in the strange man dreams and magic. "What are you?" she asks. "Something like a beast, a bird, an angel," he says. "I am Skellig."

And there were moments of magic in this production. As stars glittered against the black, Mina pulls the blanket from the old man's back to reveal white-feathered angel wings. Michael's mother dreams of an angel visiting her sick baby the night before her operation. "Can hope do miraculous things?" she asks - and knows the baby will survive. Finally, joyfully, Skellig stands high between Michael and Mina, "a pair of angels", his job done.

The nine narrators worked as an ensemble, creating living sets with their bodies, verbally and physically woven into the action. Tom Clarke as Michael caught the intelligence, confusion and hurt beneath his stilted relationships with parents and peers. Alice French (Mina) was the perceptive outsider, possessing self-knowledge beyond her years, Michael's child-teacher. Daniel Morton was outstanding as Skellig: both vagrant and angel, real but otherworldly, a catalyst who worked his magic on the two youngsters and their families.

There were some thoroughly enjoyable cameos: Josh Fforde-Lutter and Rob Shearman were neanderthal football hooligans; Louise Wingrove as Mum had the fastest birth on record, but suggested the tension she felt, torn between concern for her sick baby and her unhappy son. James Bevan played the unimaginative Dr McNabula with just the right touch of superiority: everything is reduced to science ("What can we doctors know about love?"), and hierarchy is alive and well, as a gaggle of medical students trot after him like salivating dogs. Ben Marshall hit the spot as an alcoholic teacher (clearly preparing for an Ofsted inspection).

"Truth and dreams are always getting muddled," says Mina. Sometimes, as here, they are one and the same thing.