Connections 2013, National Theatre, London

What’s on a teenager’s mind? To judge by Connections 2013, mainly sex, knife crime and the pains of fitting in. Swearing is popular.

Connections is a festival of plays for young companies. There are ten new plays by ten playwrights, from the fresh-faced Anya Reiss to the venerable Howard Brenton. Writers are asked to write what they like. This year, some 220 groups have taken part across Britain, and ten – one for each play – have been invited to London’s National Theatre in “celebration” of the festival at large.

Reiss’s Forty-Five Minutes (performed with blistering relish by Cockburn School, Leeds) depicts six leavers with 45 minutes to apply to university. Paralysed with fear, they bicker wittily. It’s a fine play, marred by a lame twist. Beneath the bravado lurks budding regret – there’s so much to hope for, yet so little actual hope.

Which is quite right, if we’re to believe (nobody’s favourite) teacher in Morna Pearson’s Ailie and the Alien. “My careers advice, in short, is aim lower,” he barks. “In fact that’s my advice for life. Aim low.” As with many of these plays, plot is driven by the adolescent pressure to conform. This is the tale of a misfit girl, helped out by an alien boy who fancies her. It’s clunky in places, but touching too, with shades of ET and The Little Mermaid.

The pressure to conform can be deadly in Jonathan Harvey’s Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy. Harvey looks at a homophobic hate crime. The reverse structure is intriguing and dialogue is acidly irreverent: “Did you burn the pram?” “Yeah.” [pause] “I took the baby out first.” Homosexuality – a tricky subject – is handled bravely in this stylish production by London’s LOST Theatre.

Lenny Henry’s ‘Soundclash’

No less stylish is Lenny Henry’s (say-no-to-knives) Soundclash. When inner-city boys stage a musical joust between rival MCs, tempers flare. Once again, the lead is a lonely misfit and (once again) knives intrude. The cast from London’s Woolwich Polytechnic spar with macho cocky dash.

There are no knives in Stacey Gregg’s I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here – just lots of blood. A heart flops out of a boy’s chest and slithers on the floor. Other hearts follow suit – “don’t ya hate it when your internal organs fall out?” Eventually everyone has a yawning chest wound. Why? Adolescence is hell. There might be clever moments, but it feels gratuitous and seldom shocking.

The vomit-factor is lower in Ryan Craig’s We Lost Elijah. Elijah (also a misfit) disappears during the 2011 riots. Or so everyone thinks. In fact, he’s hiding in a shed to make them miss him. “You’ll be the talk of the school,” says Grace (aka Lady Macbeth). “You’ll be the mystery man.” It’s a compelling, spicy plot, delivered with vim by Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Youth Theatre.

Jim Cartwright is one of the few playwrights who doesn’t seem awestruck by teenage sexuality. But he’s amazed by the power of phones. Mobile Phone Show casts the phone as an obsession, key to making friends, Golden Calf and potential conduit to the dead. And it’s a weapon for the picked-on young. As one boy puts it: “we don’t care about politicians who don’t care about us, we have what they don’t, unity in a second, support in a trice, a community on call.” There’s no plot, really, but an ebullient sequence of overlapping vignettes carried off with pizzazz by London’s Jigsaw Youth Theatre.

‘Ailie and the Alien’ by Morna Pearson

What could be stronger than a mobile phone? A “Guffin”, of course – an awful, shiny thing that makes wicked fantasies come true – bone cancer for the prettiest girl at school, for instance, or two bullies boiled “like teabags”. Howard Brenton’s The Guffin examines the potential for evil of the creative mind. It’s the most mysterious and ambitious play here, produced by one of the best companies, PACE from Paisley.

While her peers lean towards pubescent tragedy, Jemma Kennedy is rather romantic with Don’t Feed the Animals. Inspired by the anarchic spirit of Homer Simpson, among others, a gang teams up with a circus facing ruin – “everybody’s got something to put in the ring”, apparently.

Lucinda Coxon’s teenagers play parents with teenage children in What Are They Like? The idea lends itself to comedy and pathos. There’s a dad who competes with his son (how did she come up with that?) and mums who long for their kids to leave home, there are liars and schemers, the tender, needy and baffled. It’s a wise play, well-formed, and the cast from Wigan’s Winstanley College has great poise. Coxon’s play is a reminder that youth can act more than merely youth. Some of these dramas have tried too hard to be “down with the kids”. The Guffin and What Are They Like? have tried less hard than others and are no worse for it.

Connections feels different from most theatrical encounters. Actors take a different pleasure in their performances and so do we. The best critic is probably the audience. Every auditorium has been full, every show met with whoops. It feels like a celebration. We feel – dare I say it – connected.

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