Review: A Festival of New Writing

A chance to see the theatre of the future in action.

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Firstly, Downing’s theatre is nice- not that that should be an incentive to go and support new writing, but it really is lovely.

The fifth annual A Festival of New Writing began last night with an exceptionally strong opening gambit of ‘Death Valley by Night’ (Victor Rees), ‘There’s No Telling,’ (Cerian Craske) and ‘Star Jelly’ (Benedict Mulcare.) Each piece is about twenty minutes, produced with very minimal sets and tiny casts: which work brilliantly in the context of the evening and the writing, almost as if each play is a tiny, perfectly formed thing (I wanted to say like those very tiny versions of food you get as canapes, but I feel like that would be doing them a disservice.)

From left: Benedict Mulcare, Cerian Craske and Victor Rees.

‘Death Valley by Night’ was an exceptionally interesting opener, dealing as it did with violence, family and suspicion in rural Wales. Benjamin Gibson did excellent work as a potentially unhinged son coming to visit his aged father: the stage simmered with an air of barely concealed threat, almost as if there was an animal straining against the confines of his crumpled checked shirt. There were some lovely moments of understated, almost surreal black comedy- the judges later said that the horror of the closing revelations didn’t quite fit with the mood that had been created, which I understood to a certain extent, but I thought there was nearly a League of Gentlemen air to it which could have been played up and exaggerated to create a really pitch-black comedy. The piece is intended as an opening scene to a much longer play, and I’d be really interested to see where Rees takes it next.

Craske's 'There's No Telling' (look closely and you can see this reviewer's head on the front row.)

‘There’s No Telling,” a more stylised, monologue-driven piece, followed. Centred around William, a young gay man coming of age in the Eighties, it was at times heartbreakingly artless and evocative- William’s soft admission that a boy in his class was “pretty” made my heart hurt. There seemed to be a greater understanding of the space onstage and the limitations of such a short time- I have a long running theory that though many people can act whilst standing still, some people just can’t move on stage. ‘There’s No Telling’ solved this by having no entrances or exits- and very little movement. On paper, this sounds intensely dull- but the limited movement range of the actors made what they were doing even more striking, and I felt it worked well. Mention must be given to producer Oliver Rhodes, who stepped in the day before to play the main role and was incredible: gentle, damaged and bewildered at a world he does not fully understand. Had he not been so compelling, I think the production would have struggled: there was little sense of consequence throughout the narrative, with William’s mother only being introduced when she kicks him out, and some tropes felt a little cliched- how many more times, I wonder, will we see a closeted gay man whisper tearfully down the phone that “someone saw us” and now they can’t be together? However, I felt the concept of the various monologues affecting but never touching William was a beautiful one.

'Death Valley by Night' (with my head still visible.)

The closing piece, ‘Star Jelly’, was perhaps the most unorthodox and my favourite of the night. Following Aran, a teenage boy living in Stromness in Orkney making a recorded history project about his town, it takes in family, history and the slow decline of these lost wild places in the North Sea. Ryan Morgan is stunning as Aran: I was utterly convinced he was genuinely from Orkney since his accent was so good, but overhearing him afterwards I think he’s just very talented. The play really hinges on his likeability, and Morgan nails it: genuine but never saccharine, touching without being mawkish, hilarious without ever clowning about. The concept of the play involves most characters appearing as recordings (Mulcare imagined it as a radio play), which is a lovely conceit which falls slightly flat: there are pauses between Morgan’s dialogue and the recordings which causes a loss of emotional impact. Yet it was beautiful, with such a strong sense of time and place we could almost imagine ourselves battered by Scottish sea winds as we watched.

Although the rest of the Festival will include different pieces, I can’t recommend it enough: the Q&A at the end with industry professionals was a lovely touch and, for £5, the chance to watch the germ of something you might pay upwards of £50 for on the West End in thirty years is unmissable.

5 stars.

Header by April Jakso; photographs courtesy of Martin Bond: A Cambridge Diary.