New Writing Showcase

Mon 14th – Wed 16th October 2013

reviews

Olivia Lace-Evans

at 10:40 on 15th Oct 2013

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Whenever there is the opportunity to go and see new writing, I get particularly excited. Bristol is a city seething with dramatic talent and new writers with staggering potential are popping up all the time. Unfortunately, new writing is notoriously ‘hit and miss’ and, regrettably, that was the case for tonight’s showcase. There was certainly a huge amount of potential, but that’s all there was : potential.

The opening piece, A Question's Mark by Rosie Gailor, was one of the better scripts of the evening. Emma Pryce played a young woman, Jenny, who discusses her modern day anxieties about men, sex, family and the unknown future in a witty and, at points, moving monologue. The whole concept, taking ordinary circumstances and giving them greater meaning on stage, was relatively well executed and Pryce’s characterization was endearing. Gailor’s writing was fluid and included some very funny lines and social observations. However, the writing was stifled by the somewhat amateurish acting - something that happened throughout the evening - leading to moments where the delivery of lines felt a bit gimmicky or pantomime-esque. It was disappointing to see a talented script fall slightly flat due, not to the content, but to the performance.

Unfortunately the following piece continued on in a similar vein. When the short was introduced as an exploration of an American scheme where prisoners look after other inmates with dementia, my interest was immediately piqued. And yet, as soon as the actors began to speak, any sense of the gravity of the situation dissipated. Michael Ralph, playing Torch, portrayed his character like a clichéd Chicago gangster straight out of Bugsy Malone. Eddy Martin’s depiction of Ed, the prisoner suffering from dementia, tried desperately to move the audience, so much so that he became a forced caricature of a dementia patient. As someone who has close family with dementia, it felt patronising and insensitive. I couldn’t take the piece seriously, particularly after the terrible stage combat towards the end, which is a shame.

The HPL by Alex Needham was a strong script. The dialogue between an hourly paid lecturer and his student, who he attempts to have an affair with, was hilarious and demonstrated a refreshing originality in his writing. Joanne Brooks was a good choice for the bolshy and confident Miranda and the dynamic between her and Alex Walls’ more skittish professor worked well. However, the impact of the piece was diminished by the bizarre decision to continue the scene on after the dramatic climax which I won't spoil. This meant that the scene simply fizzled out and left the audience slightly bemused.

The Pog Act was one of the best scripts of the evening. Alex Needham is an extremely skilled writer and wrote a witty social satire on British unemployment culture. This was one of the few pieces where the acting wasn’t too painful, with Rebecca Benzie’s sinister and clipped Miss Grainger playing the part of the Ministry’s drone particularly well. Theo Fraser’s Mr Brady should also be highlighted as his performance was heart warming and subtle. The only criticism is that the piece felt slightly drawn out towards the end, but overall this was one of the strongest pieces.

Heather Lister’s Threads was my favourite piece of the evening. Lister effortlessly blended the simple concept of three women meeting for a gossip with a wider exploration of each individuals’ hidden demons. The writing was poignant and extremely well judged, drawing the audience in and forcing them to challenge their own social prejudices and the way we perceive others. I will forgive the slightly dodgy welsh accents used by the actors as their characterisations were strong and they used the space with confidence and flair.

We come onto Charlotte Eastleigh’s The Story of the Mole and the Toad Sisters. The curator told the audience that the piece intended to demonstrate the ‘power of simple story telling’. The word simple here is apt. Although the plot was endearing, the way in which it was performed eliminated any chance of taking the extract seriously as a dramatic piece. Everything from the acting to the costumes, the lighting to the stylization, all felt like a performance akin to a children’s play. Once again, the acting eradicated any chance of examining the true potential of the writer.

Andrew Curtis’ Cross Country didn’t help to dispel these conclusions. From the outset the piece needed more finesse and the writing lacked the sophistication that other writers had displayed in their pieces. The characterization and plot line were immature and disjointed and by the end of the extract I found myself struggling to remember if anything had actually happened to warrant our interest.

The final piece was a vast improvement on the latter. And yet, In The Absence of Grace still demonstrated the gulf between the ability of the writer and the actors on stage. James Morris’ character Jazz was a breath of fresh air and, for me, provided the only consistently good performance of the night. His character was witty, his American drawl perfected and he demonstrated a poignant contrast to the more manic Sidney. The actual writing itself was extremely good and with some workshopping - the end felt slightly jarring but that could be easily rectified with revision - this could be a wonderful piece.

Before the showcase started we were told to judge the show purely on the writers and the potential of their scripts. I wish I could have. As the acting was so variable it made it impossible to see the true potential or skill of the writers. Directing felt sloppy across the board and casting completely disjointed with the intentions of the extracts. If I were to review the writing I would give it three stars, but as an overall production it lacked finesse and judgment. It’s unfortunate that impressive writing was suffocated by amateur execution.

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Anwen Jones

at 17:33 on 15th Oct 2013

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It's no secret that it's incredibly hard to make your way in the theatrical world, particularly if you're a playwright. So it was encouraging to see the Bierkeller Theatre giving a number of emerging writers the chance to showcase their work on its well known stage.

Consisting of eight new sketches, the Biekeller Theatre's First Writing Platform was certainly not lacking in different subject matters, tone and perspective. However, as is the case with many shows made up of new writing, the quality of the sketches differed, at times quite dramatically, giving the overall evening a lower score than perhaps some pieces deserved. Indeed, although we were implored at the beginning of the night to focus on the writing and not the delivery, I cannot neglect to mention the effect some of the acting had on the impact of the writing, detracting, on the most part, from the vibrancy and talent of the script.

The showcase opened with Rosie Gailor's 'A Question's Mark', which explored the normal and everyday, arguing that these usual happenings are just as worthy of theatrical consideration as the outrageous, tragic and extra-ordinary. Her writing did not let her down in this sense and I was touched by the clever and warming portrayal of Jenny, a normal girl with ordinary worries and preoccupations - namely men, sex and embarrassing parents. Precisely because it was an accurate depiction of real life, Gailor's piece warranted a warm reception from the audience, demonstrating that simple concepts are sometimes the best. Emma Pryce did well to maintain this sense of simplicity through her acting and, thankfully, the impact of Gailor's writing did not suffer as a result.

However, the same can't be said for Kathy Rucker's 'Done There, Been That', a piece about the real-life story of prisoners in America caring for other inmates who suffer from dementia. Although the concept for the piece was certainly different and impressive on paper, the transition of the idea to stage fell short of the mark. A large part of this was down to fact that the writing seemed slightly presumptuous, pitying the dementia sufferer rather than exploring the other aspects of his character. In fact, the stereotypical character of Ed seemed so much like a forced, desperate recreation of John Coffey, the character from the Green Mile, that I became convinced Rucker must be a fan of Stephen King, or watched the film at least twice during the creation of the piece. This is not to say, however, that Rucker did not demonstrate writing potential, as she must be commended for attempting to create a play from such a unique idea, but the actual dialogue was more ambiguous than appealing, lacking in substance and therefore failing to connect with the audience.

HPL by Matt Cunningham followed, offering a more light-hearted, comic tone by showing the night one shy, socially awkward university lecturer attempts to woo a second year undergraduate who has been drinking heavily in true student fashion. Although perhaps a secret dream of many, this particular teacher-student rendezvous holds none of the romance or forbidden love one may expect. Written with warmth and comedy with a compelling realistic slant, Cunningham successfully demonstrates the subtle intricacies of the lives of two individuals, so much so that the characterisation in this piece particularly shone for me. The final short scene after the sketch’s climax was, admittedly, incongruous with the piece on a whole but overall it was funny and endearing – a well written and performed piece of theatre.

The final piece before the interval was another well written script. A clever take on the issue of unemployment, The POG Act by Alex Needham was witty and insightful. It was clear from the offset that Needham writes with a strong personal voice as the characterisation of all roles originated powerfully from their dialogue and actions. Having said this, it was a piece that did not stand out for me after the show and I can only put this down to the length of the sketch; although the idea was original and the writing compelling, the action lagged towards the end and I found myself losing interest. If Needham were to compress the idea, and take less time in reaching the climax, than I have no doubt that the POG Act would be an excellent piece of theatre.

Heather Lister’s play ‘Threads’ opened the second half of the evening, a piece about three Welsh women, joined by their love for sewing and gossip. A simple concept yes, but Lister’s creation of such believable characters was so well done that the result was an unassuming, beautiful insight into human life. Not only was it funny, but the writing had shades of the tragic and the profound, tackling subjects such as post-traumatic stress disorder with such delicacy that nothing stood out as being incongruous to the plain, modest situation of the three women. Admittedly, the laboured welsh accents and disappointing acting did detract somewhat from the elegance of the script but this was an issue that affected nearly all of the pieces, and so didn’t, for me at least, topple Lister’s play from being one of my favourites of the night.

Charlotte Eastleigh’s play ‘The Story of the Mole and the Toad Sisters’ came next, a reinterpretation of an old native American story using rhyme and old fashioned story-telling. Similar to a bed-time story, this piece was certainly simple in its delivery, relying on a traditional narrator to construct a linear framework. Some may argue that this gave the piece a sense of immaturity which made it less appealing and enjoyable but I can honestly say that I personally found it, from start to finish, incredibly entertaining. Not only is it immensely difficult to convey a story through rhyme, it is also hard to make a traditional ancient tale new and relevant to a modern day audience and yet this is precisely what Eastleigh did. I loved it’s childlike quality and the bizarre notions of talking animals and elements and I’m thoroughly pleased that Eastleigh has been able to bring a slice of the innocence and comedy that make up such old tales to the stage.

Cross Country by Andrew Curtis followed, cleverly using contemporary pop music to transport the audience away from the wilderness of the previous piece and into the grimy, drunken, arm-flailing world of a modern day club. However, the subsequent exploration of friendship and coming-of-age struck no lasting accord with the audience and, at times, became laboured and boring. I appreciate the attempt to investigate the issue of belonging, and moving on, but Curtis’ plot seemed overly dramatized, and the revelation between the two girls at the end appeared more gratuitous than meaningful to the text. On the whole, the story just didn’t hang together, and we were given snapshots, rather than true characterization, throughout.

The final piece of the evening was Esme Le Jeune’s ‘In the Absence of Grace’. It was a powerfully moving piece of writing, seamlessly combining the tragic with the comic, whilst depicting a very real picture of grief and how people cope with it. The character of Jazz, played by James Morris, was undeniably wonderful, receiving bursts of laughter from the audience due to his dry humour and superb characterization. In fact, the structure of the piece as whole, with the narrator overseeing the action and providing snippets of poetic language and philosophy, was very well created and Le Jeune should be praised for doing something different from the usual in regards to her approach to story-telling. A very competent and persuasively written sketch.

Overall, I am thrilled that the Bierkeller is providing a platform for new writing, as some of the scripts from the showcase are the creations of some incredibly talented individuals who deserve recognition for their work. However, the differing quality of sketches means the night as a whole was both impressive and disappointing. In addition, although the show is a celebration of new writing, it is impossible to gage the full impact and talent of scripts when the acting and delivery of lines does not do the writer justice. Regretfully, the impression of the pieces may have been greatly improved had the acting been better.

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