REVIEW: A Festival of New Writing

A day at Downing Dramatic Society’s A Festival of New Writing.

Cambridge Theatre downing Downing Dramatic Society festival of new writing student theatre

‘There isn’t a baby on the planet that isn’t born angry and confused.’

This is just one example of the many bright and arresting lines in the three plays performed as part of the Downing Festival of New Writing – Johannes Black’s ‘Frank and the Baby’, Maya Yousif’s ‘Ava’ and Jenny O’Sullivan’s ‘Curriculum Vitae’. Spoken towards the end of O’Sullivan’s play, it was a line that particularly struck me – partly because it captured a thought that I could never have expressed so well myself, and partly because it seemed to articulate what the Festival was all about.

There was something very special about being able to watch the emergence of three plays into the world for the first time, each one promising and striking in its own way. Yousif, in the Q&A after the performances, talked about the excitement she felt when she watched her actors give her script breath, bringing it alive on stage. Tonight, everyone could share in this excitement.

[Credit: Kieran Tam]

None of the plays could be described as perfect, but then, as drafts, no one should expect them to be perfect. It was the rawness of the material that made it so vibrant and compelling, despite the moments of frustration or confusion that are inevitable in the early stages of any creative act. Part of the excitement of watching a baby is wondering what it will turn into.

The first play to be performed was Black’s ‘Frank and the Baby’. As the seats filled beneath the blue sky of the Howard Theatre, the audience was confronted with the pregnant silence of objects waiting on stage: a table, a chair, a phone, a veiled cradle with a bundle inside. We waited for the phone to ring, or the baby to cry, but instead the play begun with a shrill, disembodied voice counting down from ten. There was a certain ambiguity as to who to ascribe the voice to – was it the six-month old baby? Or was the baby only a rolled-up towel, the voice a projection of the father’s imagination?

Black had said he wanted to leave the audience asking questions, and he succeeded in doing this. The play was labile and I enjoyed the difficulty in pinning down any one interpretation. The judges commented afterwards that the internal logic of the play wasn’t always clear  and I agree that at times my questions were the result of confusion rather than ambiguity.

[Kieran Tam]

This confusion mainly arose from the character of Frank who served as a sort of conduit. The play had echoes of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’  and just as Beckett decided to omit the Auditor from the performance of his monologue, Frank should perhaps have been less present onstage. This would have made the relationship between father and child more claustrophobic, the effects more visceral. Black says his play was originally conceived as a monologue, and I couldn’t help but think that the play would be better if pared down closer to his original conception. The writing of this script was the most lyrical of the three, but perhaps translated the least effectively onto the stage.

In Yousif’s play, the acerbic energy created by Jake Kroeger and Jessica Murdoch in their roles as marketing executives for a sinister virtual reality campaign was transfixing. Yousif brilliantly captured the painfully self-conscious atmosphere of the office in which the unassuming Emma attempted to divert her interviewer’s intense scrutiny away from herself- hopelessly gesturing to the view of London, the thousand-pound swivel chair. The build-up of dread as the executives gradually revealed their purpose,  innocently termed as ‘product placement’ but really involved the construction of a virtual Ava using scans of Emma’s face, was subtle and effective, yet the moment of revelation was slightly anti-climactic.

[Credit: Kieran Tam]

The performance was intellectually engaging throughout, but would have been more emotionally effecting if Emma’s character had been deeper, and her voice more idiosyncratic. Her plight as an individual in a ruthlessly homogenising system could have provided more of a human contrast to Miles and Annabel, for whom the past was a superficial accessory – Miles fabricates that he was caned at Harrow to win Emma’s sympathy.

Yousif expressed that her main concern was to prevent her play from feeling overly didactic, and at times it felt like her characters were less three-dimensional then they could have been, and more like vehicles of textual debate. Yet the script remained witty – we were reminded Jesus had only 12 followers to Kim Kardashian’s millions – and perhaps it was a self-conscious reflection of the world that she was presenting on stage, in which the pressures of commercialism and social media could compress you to a purely two-dimensional face, eviscerated of authenticity.

The final play, O’Sullivan’s, was brilliantly acted, and perhaps worked the best of the three as a cohesive whole. It was deftly put together, featuring originally handled material that could easily have become sentimentalized or clichéd in less capable hands. O’Sullivan gives a dissected view of an individual attempting to navigate her identity within the currents of the modern world. We are given the ‘alternative’, rather than the ‘kind’, fiction (just as Collinson tells her hypothetical child her cuddly toy is built on the sweat of child labourers), and human truths are deployed in a wonderfully gentle and self-mocking way.

The play was funny and profound and brilliantly acted. Emily Collinson was particularly wonderful as the protagonist helplessly fending off her hypothetical boyfriend/girlfriend/child. The play interestingly explores the ability of the imagination to allow both self-knowledge and self-delusion; the dissection and the construction of a shell (tortoises are a recurrent image); and to build a heaven or a hell in the monotony of the everyday.

The Q&A at the close of the evening was enlightening. It was edifying and fascinating to hear the plays pulled apart and praised, and incredibly helpful to anyone aspiring to read or write well.

I feel truly privileged to have been able to watch the first incarnation of each of these plays and so many brilliant writers and actors in the early stages of their development. I can’t wait to see what they all do next.