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Newbury Youth Theatre - Hope Springs

17th July 2006.

Journey to hell and back

Newbury Youth Theatre's Hope Springs is powerfully dark, but can light triumph in the end?

Newbury Youth Theatre: Hope Springs, at The Corn Exchange on Monday July 17, followed by a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and tour to local schools

Newbury Youth Theatre is heading for the Edinburgh Festival for the 12th consecutive year, this time with Richard Conlon's play, Hope Springs, jointly directed by Amy and Tony Trigwell-Jones.

The play explores some of the themes of 1984 and Lord of the Flies in an absolutely contemporary context, the ominous hum of a menacingly expectant soundtrack rumbling beneath its powerful subject matter and compelling text.

Hope Springs is a private 'correctional facility' for teenagers, run on Brat Camp lines, but the play predates the TV series.

It was written in response to The Last Resort, journalist Decca Aikenhead's piece on Tranquillity Bay, a private 'behaviour modification' facility for disruptive American kids in Jamaica - run there because its practices are illegal in the US.

The night all communication with Hope Springs goes down, two educational inspectors, despatched to check on the problem, discover the horrifying flip-side of such a draconian regime.

Inspector: "Where's the principal?" Reply: "We're the bad kids. There are no principles."

There's more than a whiff of Guantanamo here, but this remote island camp - the spare set its metaphor - is British and cold: literally and in its ethos. Individuality is crushed. Inmates are identically dressed in combat trousers, penitentiary shirts bearing the Hope Springs name and logo, and flip-flops ("you can't run in flip-flops"). The teenagers' names are never used: too individual a concept for a brutalising programme that aims to 're-programme' them to conform to pre-conceived norms. But names are important: they're literally etched into the principal's skin.

She (Clarisse Loughrey), in corporate black trouser suit (her uniform) is the chillingly reasonable voice of the company's promotional video, her platitudes management-ese at its most vacuous. Speaking, oh so sincerely, to prospective parents, she tells them that Hope Springs' mission is a "battle for the hearts and minds of your children" and, of course, a "partnership" with them.

Set against this is the kids' searing hurt: their troubled relationships, their problems with parents. Ringleader 1 (Daniel Morton) knows his own "hard-wired" cruelty stems from the abuse he suffered at home from his pillar-of-the-community teacher father: he has been sent from one form of abuse to another.

Ringleader 2 - Karin Brooker - "I'm mad, bad and dangerous to be with, but not stupid", only copes outwardly. Feisty 'bad girl' (Sarah Sherriff) refuses to kow-tow. Others, desperate to go home, have started to play the Hope Springs' game.

The sensitive, insightful suicide (Louise Wingrove) cuts herself, starves herself, but finally takes control: she walks into the sea, her clothes weighted down with pebbles, gifts from the others for her "special project".

The description of this play as dark hardly comes close, but it ends on a note of hope. A video screen again sputters with the sound of pebbles dropped into water: the Hope Springs' community, wrapped in blankets, are coming back to the mainland.

From their pockets they take pebbles and drop them into the ocean, to the soundtrack of Bright Eyes' When Winter Ends. They have chosen life over death, light over dark. Hope really does spring.

Powerful stuff - and by my reckoning one of Newbury Youth Theatre's finest productions.