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Northern Irish primary school thriller

I very much like the sound of Replay Theatre Company’s The School Underneath — a thriller for 6-9 year olds — which begins a six week tour of primary schools in Northern Ireland tomorrow before a week long public run on the stage of the brand new Lyric Theatre in Belfast next month (June 22-26).

Young audiences are promised plenty of the subversion-in-a-safe-environment which characterises all good children’s theatre. In this case that includes, according to the press release: “pyrotechnics, illusions, giant pencil cases, madcap and mayhem” which are “all part of the school routine in the exciting parallel universe of The School Underneath, where everyday objects become filled with wonder and magic and absolutely anything can happen.”

Sponsored by the bakery company Brennans Bread, The School Underneath is a devised piece which has taken three years to create. During that time, writer Kareen Pennefather, artistic director of the Sligo-based company Monkeyshine, took up temporary residence in six primary schools across Northern Ireland. The play has emerged from that work. When the process began, the children concerned were at P5 stage — the equivalent of Year 5 in England. As the project reaches completion, they are coming to the end of their time in primary school and about to move into secondary education.

The six schools which took part are: Bunscoil Mhic Reachtain, Belfast; Ballydown Primary School, Banbridge; St. Colmcille’s Primary School, Claudy; St. Patrick’s & St. Joseph’s Primary School, Garvagh; Jones Memorial Primary School, Enniskillen; and Crumlin Primary School.

For the past 23 years, Replay has made an art form out of transforming a whole host of unlikely venues like school halls, libraries, playgrounds and assembly halls into exciting theatrical spaces. This time, it seems, they will be taking that skill a good bit further.

“We will set up a very boring looking classroom in each performance area,” explains artistic director Anna Newell. “The children will come in and will probably think they are in the dullest place on earth. They sit down on cushions and are invited to engage their imaginations. Then the scary bits and the fun begin.”

Also involved in this original-sounding piece are choreographer and dancer Stevie Prickett, set and costume designer Diana Ennis, dramaturg Beccy Smith, master puppet-maker Frank Quinn and composer Justin Yang. Then there’s a cast of three young actors all with impressive CVs — Cat Barter, Shaun Blaney and John Travers.

All very promising. So, listen up, Replay. Any chance of a tour this side of the Irish Sea once you’ve completed the one on your own turf?

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