One of the year's most invigorating and innovative theatrical weeks of the year takes place every July when the National is briefly overrun by groups of schoolgoer companies presenting plays from the Shell Connections programme of new plays specially written for them by leading contemporary playwrights.
This is theatre by, for and about a mainly teenager group of young people, a constituency rarely addressed in contemporary theatre. And it delivers an electrifying charge that you rarely experience elsewhere: urgent, authentic and alive, it is theatre that truly matters. If this energy can be harnessed and harvested, the theatre's future is forever secured.
The programme of ten plays, however, does something more than just give young actors something to work with that speaks directly to them; it also has the potential to address a wider constituency interested in the sorts of things that are preoccupying the youth of today. While the Shell Connections season has them played in school and youth group productions that feel utterly real, there's inevitably a scrappy feeling to it, too: expecting these young actors to respond to a foreign auditorium is a little ambitious, though it sometimes creates remarkable dramatic sparks. Nor can the productions - descending on the National from all over the country - together offer anything in the way of an integrated, cohesive approach to the plays.
So it's hugely welcome that, for the first time, three of the Shell Connections plays are being given a fuller, professional life now in new productions in the Cottesloe that show what a rich dramatic programme this is. The three selected for this wider exposure - written by Enda Walsh, Deborah Gearing and Mark Ravenhill - are a challenging, audacious trilogy of sparky, vibrant pieces that take the pulse of modern youth in surprising and sometimes shocking ways.
Walsh's play Chatroom takes us online into a series of teenage chatrooms, and the support and bullying that a deeply troubled 15-year-old named Jim, abandoned by his dad when he was six, alternately finds there. Gearing's Burn, by contrast, takes us out into the streets and beside the riverbank, for another disturbing portrait of a loner, who is being relocated from his current foster care to Birmingham, one fateful day. And Ravenhill's Citizenship - the only play to go inside the schoolgates - is a beautifully imagined and subtle portrait of a boy discovering his sexuality.
The plays are impressively charged in Anna Mackmin's driven productions by some startling and brilliant performances. Andrew Garfield (recently also superb in the Sound Theatre's revival of Beautiful Thing) gives performances of such yearning desolation in both Chatroom and Burn that itís clear a major actor has arrived in our presence. I only hope he is not instantly lost to television. Sid Mitchell's teenager in Citizenship is also a sharply defined portrait of a boy trying to discover himself, while Matt Smith is a comic delight as an expectation-defying friend.
These are just three of a wonderful ensemble cast whose work should not be missed. Seen together, they make for a longish evening - it runs, with two intervals, at over three hours - but on most nights only two of the plays are given, so check the schedule.
- Mark Shenton