During the pandemic, the enterprising Finborough Theatre has released a whole string of videoed past productions at roughly the rate of one per month giving us all a chance to delve into the archive of its many and varied theatrical pieces. In 2021 the venue has decided to concentrate on new online productions and has already given us the 28 episode cycle of Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels from Athena Stevens.
Its current offering is the much briefer and more low key – Playfight which has been released for just a week. The play won its writer, Julia Grogan, the theatre’s 2020 ETPEP Award (Experienced Theatre Practitioners Early Playwriting Trust) for new playwrights who already work in the industry in some other capacity. Among the prizes on offer the piece would normally have received a staged reading last September; for obvious reasons this has been somewhat delayed and has had to go online.
The play concerns three teenage friends and we follow their progress from the age of 15 to 24 (Grogan’s actual age) as they work out their futures in a small town where there’s not much to do and life seems to be happening somewhere else. Zainab is the popular academic, Lucy the rather more retiring Christian and Keira just wants to have (what she perceives as) a good time. I’m aware that makes the trio sound like gross stereotypes.
In fact, Grogan is much more subtle in her writing than to allow that to be the case. The piece starts out by suggesting that one of the three is going to be the central character with the other two as acolytes. In fact, this perspective shifts as the three young women deal with a number of issues infusing the play with character change and development. The dialogue cracks along and seems authentic but as I’m in no way part of the featured demographic it’s not really for me to say.
What I will say, is that authentic or not it works in helping to create three readily believable characters. Starting out relatively carefree, gradually issues begin to emerge. Zainab is wrestling with her sexuality and Keira finds herself falling into a form of online prostitution. But it’s Lucy’s problem which eventually takes the central focus. She is finding herself trapped in an increasingly abusive relationship and the circumstances of this only emerge gradually. Tragedy inevitably strikes and we are left to consider the iniquities of a system which will seemingly tolerate the so-called “rough sex defence” plea.
The trio meet under a tree nearby to their school; it is a place of safe haven where they can mutually explore their own feelings, share the latest gossip and generally “hang out” in a way that actually hasn’t been possible (or, at least permissible) for many months now. The tree also acts as a silent fourth character to whom they can share their problems and which symbolises persistence and longevity.
Director Blanche McIntyre has interspersed scenes with filmed shots of a tree which I didn’t feel was necessary as audiences are, by now, becoming used to the convention of not having a full scenic backdrop. Given that they are actually working in separate locations the three actors readily convince us that they are in the same space. Although Helen Monks’ character, Keira starts by being the attention grabber with strong language, opinions and attitudes, the other two Robyn Cara (Zainab) and Hannah Millward (Lucy) soon come into their own. The latter’s subtle approach provides a strong and sure contrast to the more outgoing personas of the other two.
Julia Grogan’s play seems to be a worthy winner of the ETPEP Award and introduces an interesting new voice to the industry. The competition is running again this year (click here for further details) with the deadline for submissions being the end of April. I wonder if a play about someone viewing and reviewing online every day for over a year would have anything to say to the world.