The focus on new writing schemes has been reassuring in the last year, quelling pandemic period fears that venues would prioritise ‘safe’ revivals of well-known work in a new risk-averse landscape. Instead, initiatives such as Sonia Friedman’s well-cultivated RE:EMERGE season at the Harold Pinter Theatre have made important statements about the value of new voices and stories to the growth and recovery of the theatre ecosystem.
Others soon followed suit with debut plays including All of Us by Francesca Martinez at the National and Jack Holden’s Cruise appearing across subsidised and commercial theatres. And that support continues with new work recently announced in seasons at the Royal Court, Jermyn Street Theatre and the Arcola Theatre among others. Meanwhile, Riverside Studios has partnered with the Original Theatre Company to make their three competition-winning plays from debut writers available for on-demand viewing.
Across three nights in July, these three plays were performed in the small space at Riverside Studios with all-star casts and simultaneously live-streamed to an international audience. The showcase for debut writing excellence is now for sale as a triple-package with the third piece, Tikkun Olam, also available as a distinct digital entity. Separate release dates for Miles and The Fall will follow, but watching them as a collective is just as valuable, transporting the viewer to three very different locations and into diverse lives, a chance to reflect not only on why this renewed emphasis on new writing is so valuable but also how effectively these schemes select their competition winners.
First up is Miles by Eilidh Nurse, a 95-minute play about a caravan park receptionist and her colleagues in a remote part of Scotland with few tourists and even fewer opportunities for its stymied youth. This is a real character piece and while there are underlying plot drivers, the creation of people the audience can invest in is the focus, with much of the first hour given over to building a sense of the individuals through slow-burn conversation and, often, conflicted interaction. So, when the drama finally comes, its impact is more deeply felt. Although Nurse keeps those reverberations subtle and small within the context of this work and the particular personalities involved, the outcomes nonetheless feel seismic for the lives depicted.
Miles opens with a new arrival, 18-year old -Ed (Cristian Ortega) – who comes to work at the caravan park alongside 24-year-old Janey (an excellent Hiftu Quasem) and 48-year-old owner Bobby (Gary Lewis), their ages only relevant to the similarities and differences that the characters feel exist between them. But while there has been a harmony of sorts for many years, Ed’s presence becomes the catalyst for the drama, precipitating a greater self-knowledge for the team, including himself, and like an inverse Pinter interloper, actually bringing people together. Ed has no awareness of his role as an instrument of change and nor do other characters recognise him as such, but Nurse uses the break from routine to take the cast forward.
But Miles is not a play that shies away from difficult subject matter, and beneath its comedic surface are some tougher themes about loneliness and lost opportunity, about the sacrifices people make to protect themselves from facing a frightening reality and about the limitations of living in small rural locations where economic deprivation and limited chances to meet or interact beyond the immediate community are both stifling and oppressive. Nurse’s skill is in weaving all of that through a show about day-to-day lives and the ordinariness that comes with it. No one actively steps back to address these themes in unlikely dialogue or dramatic encounters, but through the things they say and don’t say, the things they do and don’t do, the revelatory contextual backdrop to Miles looms large.
Central to this is the character of Janey whose story this really is and whose prickly, rather acerbic demeanour keeps other people at arms length while she quietly relies on their interaction as her primary sustenance. This isn’t the first creation whose hard surface reveals a more vulnerable layer beneath but Nurse has written a complex young woman who barely knows herself, unable to control the attitude she projects, mixing a world-weariness with her own frustrations about where she lives and feeling trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling existence that Janey is unable to escape from.
But for all that, there is a growing affection for her, a respect for her quippy no-nonsense style that develops in the early part of the show as the audience comes to understand that there is far more to Janey than she allows others to see, that before the curtain falls on this play, there will be revelatory explanation that will justify the allowances the audience is asked to make for her. Like almost everyone else in this drama, she is a product of her circumstances and experience against which, in reality, it is far harder to fight than fiction often acknowledges.
The other characters have less stage time but the snapshot of their lives also proves enlightening and engrossing. Bobby in particular proves the perfect foil and although appearing selectively throughout, Bobby supplies much of the backdrop to Janey’s story while retaining a credible life of his own. An equally lonely figure, Bobby’s reliance on the younger woman to help run his business while he attends to practical maintenance is tempered by a gentle subplot in which Bobby starts dating. It isn’t a showy storyline but it explores the desire for companionship and the hope of a different kind of life that still appeals to him despite how long he has felt trapped in his own recurring role – a glimmer of hope that things can always be different if you let them. While Bobby represents a possible future for the young adults if they choose to stay in this place, his essential kindness and the fatherly care he projects for Janey in particular add substance to the caravan park set-up.
The discursive nature of the play becomes more tangible in the final third of Miles when another interloper arrives, this time seeking to disrupt the steady state that Nurse has so carefully established and the unfolding drama occurs rapidly. It would be valuable to spend more time in this part of the play, expanding the causes and consequences of the central revelation and how it has shaped the behaviour of the characters it affects as well as what that means for their lives in the period beyond the play. Having spent so much time with them and been drawn so well into their experience, this moment of reckoning and its meaning need just a little more development in what has been a gripping and thoughtful character study.
Drew Hewit’s The Fall couldn’t be more different. The second play in the Original Theatre Company sequence, it is an intellectual and conceptual piece about the nature of performance, memory and personality. Essentially a psycho-drama set across a therapist’s office and a family home, Hewitt is focused on suppressed trauma emerging slowly through behavioural tics during a period of several weeks that affect a woman’s ability to speak. At 1 hour and 40-minutes, The Fall is quite a dense play with lots of psychological and medical discussion carving out the differences between character Jan’s past and present as well as her emotional safety in various locations. It has a filmic quality that perhaps better suits this digital format than a traditional stage treatment.
Hewitt’s core concern is with the nature of reality and concepts of predestination or predetermination in how an individual life might unfold. It opens with a heightened scene, a drunk exuberant woman flirting with a young lodger and criticising her staid husband whose subsequent entrance creates a melodramatic argument. But it is a scene from a play written by the characters, also a husband and wife team who suffer a medical emergency that stops their performance, after which Jan (Sara Stewart) is unable to speak. It is an interesting way in from Hewitt, catching the audience off-guard, unsure what exactly they are seeing and setting up the play’s central premise about the layers of falsity between reality and dramatic fiction.
What ensues is a complex examination of personality, separating Jan and Liam (Adrian Lukis) from their characters Vicky and Bill within their drama, as well as Jan’s fears that her life is pre-scripted, that free will is impossible in medical terms because the brain has already triggered the requisite motion or response before we are consciously aware of the need to do so. Jan feels like she is in a play, a sense that her life is a reflection of a reflection, a theory enhanced first when her doctor (Alex Kingston) continually muddles Jan and Vicky as distinct entities but also when husband Liam hires an understudy to play her role. It is a notion that isn’t fully realised in the play, particularly as plot twists and dramatics are employed to force a resolution but where individuality begins and end, whether lives, speeches and responses are entirely predictable is an area that Hewitt could expand.
There is something of the screenplay about the short-scene style and use of music as a segue between locations and moods. Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a large portion of the drama is set in therapy sessions – the only place Jan is willing to speak, although not necessarily with any structure or purpose – in which the psychoanalyst tries to unpick her mental state and its trigger. Unlike Miles, this isn’t really a character study and nor does Hewitt ask the audience to fully invest either in the individuals or their lifestyle, they are not purposefully sympathetic creations that warrant pity or pathos from us, remaining at a distance, perhaps intentionally behind the glass camera lens where they can be coldly observed and monitored.
Instead, the primary focus is far more clinical, looking at the medical and social explanations for Jan’s predicament as the pair explore her memories and responses that pushes the secondary characters and even the therapist slightly unsatisfactorily into the background. It makes the dialogue weighty and sometimes hard to absorb, with a slightly overcooked finale that leaves little room for ambiguity or alternative explanations for Jan’s actions.
The debates about the formation of self and the limits of individual action are themselves interesting, particularly as Hewitt moves closer to the ultimate ‘explanation’ for Jan’s actions that, like Anthony Edwardes’s treatment in Spellbound, culminates in a tense personal and narrative breakthrough that anticipates a resolution of sorts. Built around the exploration of a behavioural theory that uses drama quite differently to its fellow finalists, Hewitt’s play is an experimental and stylistic one. The risks don’t fully pay off but Hewitt nonetheless explores the boundaries and possibilities of the form.
Tikkun Olam completes the group with its focus on local politics, social trends and the compromises of governance, making this is a fascinating and varied collection of new plays that are now available on demand to a much larger audience. What happens next for each of these works and their writers will be very interesting in a period where new writing is being given a more substantial platform at major venues as well as online. If competitions and investment can unearth work of this diversity and quality, then there could be an some interesting months ahead.
A package of Originals On Demand including Miles, The Fall and Tikkun Olam is available on demand from the Original Theatre Company for £30. Tikkun Olam is available separately for £18 with pre-order for Miles and The Fall also open. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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