Mark Fisher reports on the work with children undertaken by the David Glass Ensemble

IT'S Wednesday night and Newcastle is jumping. Celtic are in town for the Peter Beardsley testimonial match against United, and the streets are snapping with midweek excitement. Life, however, is a degree more contemplative in Newcastle Playhouse's Gulbenkian Studio, a terrace-chant away from St James's Park, and a world away in mood. Here the audience has turned out for the premiere of The Lost Child, the second instalment of a trilogy by the David Glass Ensemble. Having explored the idea of childhood abandonment in Hansel Gretel Machine, seen in Scotland last year, the physical theatre company has drawn on its experiences working with neglected and abused

children worldwide to create a wordless nightmare of fear, memory, and loss.

Nightmares are, of course, a feature of childhood and, with its skewed perspectives and Through the Looking-Glass imagery, there's a sense in which The Lost Child is a recreation of the surreal dream-time logic that plays especially on the young mind.

What's disconcerting, however, is that the imagery is drawn not from idle fantasy, but from conversations with real children that took place on the company's international tour of Hansel Gretel Machine. Each place they stopped, they would work and play with a group of children, using the Grimm's fairy tale as a starting point, and communicating in the universal language of mime and gesture at which they are adept.

In Vietnam, they befriended deaf children, in the Philippines, street children, and so on, in Colombia, China, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. They met children who had been sexually assaulted, those who worked as prostitutes, others who had seen violence, or woken up to find their friends had ''disappeared'', and they tried to get the measure of their dreams, memories, and fantasies.

''In each case we spent two or three weeks working with the kids on developing their own versions of Hansel and Gretel, exploring themes of abandonment and poverty, and presenting it with mime, puppetry, dance, and movement,'' says David Glass, whose past productions include Popeye, Gormenghast, and King Stag. ''With kids, you can deal with their outside, but the best way is to deal with their insides, creatively. You can use play, story-telling, music, as a way to reach these traumatised children. Kids came to us rigid with inability to trust anybody because they'd been sexually abused, and suddenly they were being lifted by adults, touched in ways that were safe, and playful.''

These experiences abroad were as much an end in themselves as a way of finding raw material for the second play. They were hugely influential, but did not form the script itself. ''One thing we knew we couldn't do was take all that experience and put it in a show,'' he says. ''It'd be like taking a huge, extraordinary journey and putting it in a very small bottle.

It wouldn't work. So this is really a distillation of feelings we had for the children. I didn't want it

to be too literal. I tried to create

a dream play, where things

made sense almost entirely in an imagistic way.''

The result is something at once familiar and distant. We recognise the bogey-man imagery of a Lewis Carroll white rabbit toting a meat clever in hot pursuit of the frightened children, just as we are alarmed that something

similar might actually be happening in real life. In this sense, it's frustrating that The Lost Child doesn't provide a political context to its disturbing stage pictures. Children's suffering is not an inevitable humanitarian tragedy, but a correctable consequence of a warped social order, and in calling on us simply to feel sad (not angry) about their plight, Glass sidesteps the greater horror. In fact, it's a play seen through adult eyes, and it strikes me as being as much about an adult's fear of children as it is about the child's more justified fear of grown-ups. Perhaps these elements will be resolved next year in The Red Thread, the final part of the trilogy, and a play set closer to home.

''For The Lost Child, I wanted to take the company away from this country in order to see ourselves more clearly,'' says Glass. ''Hopefully, the third part of the trilogy will be working more in England, using some of the skills and experiences of working with these children.''

To be fair, the performance in Glasgow on Monday will be different even from Wednesday's debut. Glass is one of those directors who doesn't stop working just because the first night has been and gone. He'll be tinkering two or three hours a day on The Lost Child for at least the next four weeks. It's an approach increasingly common in the theatre world, whether it's Robert Lepage in Quebec, the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg, or Newcastle Playhouse itself where Alan Lyddiard's Northern Stage is in the midst of a long-term ensemble experiment. For David Glass, it's about recognising theatre as a live art, a philosophy he developed while training with Etienne Decroux, Philipe Gaulier, Peter Brook, and Jacques Lecoq, the influential physical theatre guru who died earlier this month at the age of 77.

SAYS Glass of Lecoq: ''It's the passing of one of our greatest teachers. He was a man who changed a very large aspect of theatre. If you look at theatre around the world now, probably 40% of it is influenced by Jacques Lecoq. He was the Bill Gates of theatre. He was a great teacher, a great individual, and a very inspiring man. He had a vision of the way the world is found in the body of the performer; the way that you imitate all the rhythms, music, and emotions of the world around you in your body.

''His work on internal and external gesture, and his work

on architecture, and how we are emotionally affected by space, was some of the most pioneering work of the past 20 years. Most of all, it was the way he freed the actor: he said it was your play, and the play is dead without you.''

n The Lost Child is at the James Arnott Theatre,

Glasgow, tonight, 7.30pm.