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Review: 365 at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Every day of the year young people in the UK who have spent most of their childhood in care are desperately trying to cope with adjusting to life in an "adult" world. David Harrower's play, 365, currently being staged by The National Theatre of Scotland at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith following a successful run at this year‘s Edinburgh International Festival, is a quite stunning piece of theatre that examines the experiences of a disparate group of "care-leavers" as they embark upon the frightening first steps to independence and adulthood.

The teenagers in the play, who represent a cross-section of the 6,000 children who leave "care" each year in the UK with a variety of mental disorders, conduct problems and emotional "hang-ups", reveal their stories through vignettes of scenes, dreams and memories. The audience meets them as they step into their new flats and start to learn the practicalities of learning to care for themselves, form social relationships with others and take the early steps of the emotional journey that will hopefully allow them to cope with "life".

The play was developed by Scottish playwright Harrower, working closely with The National Theatre of Scotland's artistic director, Vicky Featherstone and choreographer, Stephen Hogget (who played such a crucial role on the thrilling staging of the NTS's highly acclaimed previous production, Black Watch). The result is an almost mind-blowing theatrical experience that mixes dialogue with movement and succeeds in stirring the visual, intellectual and emotional senses of its audience. The experience is further enhanced by Georgia McGuinness's startling and highly functional set design and a song that draws the themes of the play together, composed by Paul Buchanan of the renowned Glasgow band, The Blue Nile.

The play's characters are brought to life by a young but incredibly accomplished cast of actors, each one of whom delivers a knock-out performance. The quality of the acting is so strong that it is hard to single out individuals but particularly impressive are Ben Presley (who brings both humour and pathos to the character of the not-too-bright boy whose only possession of value is his toaster); Ashley Smith (who gives a heartbreaking performance as a girl struggling to cope with the knowledge that she was neglected and abandoned as a young child by her mother); Gayle Telfer Stevens (who gives a highly sympathetic performance as the social worker fighting against the odds to care for the teenagers under her supervision while balancing her capacity for caring against her need to distance herself emotionally); and Owen Whitelaw (who gives perhaps the most eye-catching and powerful performance of all as the "damaged" boy whose own emotional scars have made him malevolent and violent but who is still a frightened little boy inside).

The writing, the staging and the acting of the piece make 365 incredibly powerful. But what perhaps makes it even more effective is that, while dealing with the highly emotive social issues of "urban pain", it never attempts to preach. It asks questions rather than provides answers and at the end the audience, just like the troubled teenagers in the play, feel torn between the need to know the truth and the fear of learning the truth. If the play appears unfinished, that is its strength. It's as incomplete as the lives of its characters and one can only hope there will be a happy ending.


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