August 2019 meeting report

Writers’ Night

Sussex Playwrights was established originally to read and discuss writers’ plays.

Now we’ve re-established it as a great place for writers, performers, producers and makers of new stage, screen, audio and online drama, we’re going to be weaving this idea back into our monthly meetings schedule over the next few months. We’ll be keeping the mix of networking, special guests and guest performances too. Monologues, dialogue, sketches, screenplays – we’ll be inviting writers to come along with short examples of your writing to be read and discussed on Writers’ Nights.

August 2019’s meeting was a Writers’ Night.

We featured playwright and poet Simon Jenner, in discussion about his work with a reading of his first short play Stemming the Flow, an encounter between Byron and Keats, with Simon as Byron, Russell Shaw as Keats and Philippa Hammond as the Doctor, a reading by Simon of his latest piece My Shit Year and some in depth group discussion on the writing and reading of the works.

We’ll be featuring more play readings over the autumn and winter – please let us know if you have a piece you would like to propose for a reading at a meeting.

Philippa  chair@sussexplaywrights.co.uk

Numbers

Mercury Theatre Productions

Oxford University National Tour Production

Written and directed by Alex Blanc
Featuring
Jack: Henry Waddon
Michael: Joe Woodman
Brianna: Abi Harindra

Rialto Theatre, Brighton (Edinburgh preview)

‘… a lighthearted, honest look at male mental health in the 21st century, and we’re really proud to be working in association with the UK’s leading mental health charity SANE on the production. It aims to show that recovery is possible; in the midst of a crisis in mental health, Numbers’ core message is one of hope.’ (producers)

We think we’ve seen this before – three young actors, three chairs, an Edinburgh-focussed hour on a black box stage. But this goes above and beyond expectations. Writer/director Alex Blanc’s tale of three troubled young people is sharply observed and written in a fluent, natural voice.

A therapy group’s a classic storytelling setting. We’re the other members of the circle, hearing Jack and Michael sharing their stories of who they are and what’s happening to them, with the message that boys too suffer emotional distress and tortured self image.

The writing slips between monologues and conversations, with Jack sometimes commenting on the story and moving the scenes along. On a directorial note, it’s sometimes a little on the nose – characters saying how they feel in an appropriate tone of voice – and a more contradictory reading of the lines might add intrigue and deeper layers, while at times, rapid speaking meant words and meaning were difficult to catch. That great performance energy and a very simple pared down staging kept the pace zipping along, while the few issues with the lighting can be easily polished ready for Edinburgh.

As Brianna, Abi Harindra’s sincere, giving performance is the initially ‘all about me’ girlfriend who gradually comes to a deeper understanding of what’s happening and matures into her new more adult self.

There’s ambiguity too in Michael’s story, Joe Woodman’s tightly-wound portrayal of the all too familiar tale of a gay teen rejected by his parents and seen as a problem to be solved by their church. Is he telling the truth, though?

In the lead role, Henry Waddon’s Jack is a young man struggling to deal with life. Little setbacks, a lost football match, trigger a spiral into depression, anxiety and bulimia. Waddon delivers a physically relaxed and vocally assured exploration of explosive emotional depths engagingly flavoured with a sweet sense of humour. One to watch.

The Numbers tour continues:

Edinburgh Fringe, C Aquila Temple: 1-26th Aug
Oxford, Old Fire Station: 4-6th September

Philippa Hammond

July 7th 2019 meeting report

Sussex Goes To Edinburgh!

Playwrights, performers and producers in Sussex are preparing their shows for the long journey to Edinburgh this August.

We were delighted to welcome our July 7th special guests:

Emily Carding, winner of Fringe Review Outstanding Show award at the 2019 Brighton Fringe Awards for Quintessence

Simon Jenner’s review: Quintessence Fringe Review

Roger Kay and Lauren Varnfield of the Rialto Theatre

Lauren is writer, director and performer of Myra, the solo play on the story of Myra Hindley

Our review: Myra Sussex Playwrights

Roger and Lauren invite shows scouted at Edinburgh to the Rialto each year

Actor/playwright Jules Craig, in discussion with Philippa and Emily Carding about the experience of playing Shakespeare’s iconic male roles. Jules is currently playing Shylock for the Brighton Shakespeare Company.

The Merchant of Venice review by Simon Jenner

 

The Merchant of Venice

Sussex Playwrights Reviews

The Merchant of Venice
Brighton Shakespeare Company
BOAT, June 2019

The hottest day of the year slanted through a green amphitheatre lends occasion to comedy lanced with shadows. Brailsford’s Brighton troupe – the Brighton Shakespeare Company – make BOAT the Shakespeare go-to in late June. Last year’s vigorous The Comedy of Errors darkens this year with The Merchant of Venice from 1597.

The title role’s taken by Paul Moriarty (also Duke of Arragon), Shylock by Jules Craig. With Amy Sutton as Portia – a role she rightly claims she’s born to play – Kerren Garner’s raucous Nerissa and Duncan Drury’s ardent Bassanio, it’s a line-up that almost guarantees distinction.

Moriarty’s melancholic voice commands distinction from the first, as gadflies Lorenzo (Andrew Crouch, excellent) and Stewart Barham’s skirling Gratiano float round before the entrance of Bassanio. The initially quiet Crouch livens up when courting Rachel Mullock’s joyous, flirty Jessica.

Drury and Moriarty render the homoeroticism latent and affectionate, the latter fatalistic and weary from the first, his young friend in Drury’s reading. Drury’s not quite the ruthless go-getter, his feeling for Antonio and later Portia is genuine and alter (with the ring scene) conflicted. There’s no sense that Moriarty’s delicate but firm underlining of his feelings are reciprocated or perhaps recognized. Drury’s Bassanio is casually venal, entitled to a degree, an attractive insider-dealer heedless of consequence. But he’s neither cruel not within his limits insincere. As we find.

Barham’s gravelly disdain is venom contained, less sheerly cruel to Shylock than some and winningly raunch for raunch with Garner’s in-your-face lust as Nerissa, the maid to Portia who unlike her mistress can choose and blatantly does in front of her (no matter decorum would forbid, the emotional truth of it is overwhelming). Her desire’s expressed in dance-offs. In this production the constraints of the ardent aristos are underscored by their servants’ licence (Gratiano’s status cemented after wedding Nerissa). Barham too makes a parodic peacock of the Prince of Morocco.

It’s the same with Crouch and Mullock: flirty, passionate (Jessica grabs Lorenzo from the start) less lusty than sexy. Their playful badinage in V I is beautifully pointed, darkening from mythic classics to parries at ‘pretty Jessica’ fully answered but not really portending any fractiousness. Crouch literally dances attendance and their playfulness is balletic. This Jessica casts few shadows save at the end when she realizes how she inherits what she does.

Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman (Shylock and ‘Balthazar’ striking in black, period robes seamed mainly with old reds and saffron) this production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford (Strauss waltzes in the interval, Praetorius period dances otherwise), with Associate director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner. The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. With minimal props – two benches, three caskets and a set of scales – there’s otherwise just a seductive backdrop panel of Venice with gondolas in yellow and black duo-chrome. The BOAT team supply standard facilities and lighting.

The badinage between Sutton and Garner is exquisite, both in their initial scene together when they parody previous suitors with basso and falsetto voices, and when confronting Barham’s preening Morocco and Moriarty’s rickety Arragon, full of frog Franglais.

Sutton’s distinctly terraced voicing and stage command from purr to latter steely judgement is quicksilver contained in dignity. Sutton never overstates the envelope of a rich woman richly left but inured to one constraint; but she’s deliriously playful within that. She manages though a different entitlement to Bassanio: one who knows the use of things for others’ sake, admittedly easy for her.

It’s here when Drury proves his mettle, quick sincere and decisive in his rejection of the gold and silver to Sutton’s quickening excitement, he chooses true. Drury proves here and in the subsequent trial scene his genuine agonizing and worthiness as much as any Bassanio can deserve the depth of a Portia.

There’s different registers for suitors, for Bassanio – where she breaks decorum when demanding to be claimed with a passionate kiss – and her later avatar: all recognizably different but in character. Thus Sutton’s Dr Balthazar really does seem and look different: by turns a paper-fumbling Colombo, pleading, steely, remorseless. Sutton spares some of the anti-Semitism now attributed to Portia. The text has been lightly edited.

Similarly she and Garner run rings round their hapless spouses in the two ring scenes, where Sutton literally rings with consonants. The trial scene where she takes on Craig is notably powerful: keen, spare, rivetingly lucid – which goes for the production but never more so than here.

Brailsford’s major role is Launcelot Gobbo – a role he takes in the spirit of Eric Morecombe judging by his dancing exits. It’s a characterful almost kindly reading, not as nasty as some and without the anti-Semitic point of the original. There’s a sense in which tis production wants to underscore the summery outdoors of its setting and concentrate tragedy in Shylock alone, but for Antonio’s incurable melancholy.

Garner’s Tubal to Craig’s Shylock. It occasions one of Shylock’s great monologues after an earlier one to Gratiano (‘Hath not a Jew…’). Craig’s Shylock is doubly discriminated against as a Jew and a woman. Craig brings out the desperation and revenge Shylock seeks through the only recourse she has: law. Craig’s quiet tread to judgement is riven by first Antonio’s unrepentant hostility even when making the bond – Moriarty spits in fact. And by the later discovery of Jessica’s betrayal.

This is expressed – to Tubal – in the ring (originally ‘had of Leah’) which is substituted ‘husband’ and ‘his’ not ‘my bachelor days’ of the engagement ring casually discarded by Jessica for a monkey, which Craig laments she would not have parted ‘for a wilderness of monkeys’ Rather quite in the first three acts, Craig is notably commanding in the latter two acts, basilisk-eyed and like Sutton, remorseless in front of Brailsford’s Duke of Venice. Her final ‘I am content’ after judgement is taken after a long pause and a visible shrinking into herself. It’s masterly.

There’s fine support from Katy Matthews as Solario and Gaoler as well as stage manager.

The final scenes as suggested are taken at a light lick. There’s no lingering fear from either Portia or Jessica, let alone Nerissa that things will go wrong. They’ve all commanded their respective husbands and as the final dance-off shows ‘put a ring on it’ to Beyoncé’s bouncy send-off. Despite a very occasional energy drop in Acts Two and Three this is a production of real distinction, one of the best I’ve seen outside the Globe and RSC. Sutton matches any Portia and Craig’s Shylock is a revelation.

Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman (supplied by Gladrags) this production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford (Strauss waltzes in the interval, Praetorius period dances otherwise), with Associate director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner. ASM’s Oscar Smart.

The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. With minimal props – two benches, three caskets and a set of scales, there’s otherwise just a seductive backdrop panel of Venice with gondolas in yellow and black duo-chrome.

The BOAT team supply standard facilities and lighting.

Tour dates TBA.

Simon Jenner
Sussex Playwrights

The production will next appear at Lewes Castle

Brighton Shakespeare Company

_

June 2019 meeting

Sussex Playwrights Summer Party: ‘Achievements’

The Fringe is nearly over for another year – time to gather and talk about what we saw, performed and reviewed over a month of theatre, performance, artists, open houses, music, comedy, dance …

We also featured a theme of writing on film, and we focussed on the various film productions that are happening at the moment and some that have been to Cannes this year.

Special guest producer/director Howard J Ford introducing his new family film Adventure Boyz

Trailer

Special guest Justin Hayward discussing the success of the new film script Z.APP which he is developing in collaboration with screenwriter James Alexander Allen

Myra

Myra
W
ritten, directed and performed by Lauren Varnfield
Pretty Villain Productions

‘I was a normal human being for 18 years before I met Ian’

It’s a full house tonight. That peroxide bob and sullen shadowed glare mugshot is already here live on stage, as we walk in, and we reckon we know this story, told in a tight, edgy forty-five minutes.

But Varnfield’s is a seemingly impossible achievement – research, writing and performance altering the way we’ve always seen Myra the monster.

These days we understand more of the lasting effects of physical and emotional abuse on the developing child and adolescent brain. Details of Myra’s grim childhood and teenage infatuation with the mesmerising psychopath Brady suggest that today, coercive control might actually be a credible defence.

A visit from the police, handcuffs, a holding cell – we don’t learn how they were caught, it’s irrelevant and this isn’t the police story.

Time passes via headlines; politics, social history, public events all stream by while Myra is incarcerated. It’s a great use of projection to create a sense of wasted decades.

The play flickers between scenes, backwards and forwards in time, eloquently showing how the past is always with us. Varnfield’s swiftly shifting performance is superb; brittle young girl, constantly on high alert, confusing excitement, arousal and terror til she can’t tell one from the other, contrasts the ageing imprisoned Myra, still, hunched, the voice low, slow and weary.

So was she really the changed, kindly woman Longford portrayed? We’re left with our own conclusions, guided by the letter from a mother begging for the peace that the truth might have offered.

The final moments are chilling; a video journey along the long, lonely road under boiling clouds up onto the Moor.

Rialto Theatre to June 1st
Philippa Hammond

Further Education

Further Education
By Pete Barrett
Directed by Pip O’Neill and Luke Ofield
Unmasked Theatre

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Unmasked Theatre present their second NWS shortlisted show this Fringe; also a 2018 Brighton Scratch Night winner, they delivered a well-received extract at the last Sussex Playwrights event, so we’re well primed for this often very funny slice of recent history.

1985. The miners’ strike is raging, communities are in conflict and the picket lines need manning. Barrett’s play, written a few years after the picketing wars, is only now receiving its first production. Yet it feels so recent, relevant and raw – and how can all those great songs be over thirty years old?

Neil James as Frank is an everyman fish out of water with a Not Going Out vibe, a 40-something striking Liverpudlian miner dossing in a group of right-on young feminist students’ grotty cluttered flat. We’re with him in his distaste for their Mates, bras and disgusting mug-infested squalor – his Superwoman wife would never let THAT happen.

Frank’s the most complex character in the piece, a creature of contrasts – he’s an eloquent exploration of what it might be to be the man of the house, the exhausted life-risking breadwinner in an ultimately doomed job. Staring at middle age and with another kid on the way, this cause – and this fling – might be his last chance to reconnect with his youth and secure a future. And while calling out the casual unthinking sexism of the miners, all set to beat up offending colleagues, he’s still up for launching into a family-betraying affair.

As an unlikely class-hopping friendship develops between Frank and Chris Gates’ hilarious philandering tutor Jake, channelling Hugh Grant as a chap with a habit – it was apparently OK back then – there’s a subtext suggesting that even the nicest guy will fall, faced with a pretty girl young enough to be his daughter, and when the ring comes off, so does fidelity.

Jessica Smith (Emma), Bronte Sandwell (Claire) and Ella Verity (Rachel) are a great trio, delivering fresh, engaging performances as the larky flatmates. The girls don’t quite get away with it though; committed young feminists flip happily into a quick thrill with the thoughtlessness of youth, up for a fantasy bit of fun without consequences – until the reality is suddenly sitting in their house. Now we’re weighing how much we like them all with what two of them are actually up to.

Kim Wright (Melanie) and Karen Antoni (Anne), both playing weeks away from giving birth, drop the heaviness of pregnancy, slow difficult movements, responsibility personified, into this exhilarating mix. It’s a new twist, a new flavour introduced later on by wary seen-it-before Melanie and mistakenly secure Anne. We see potentially ruined lives played for farce, and it’s both funny and uncomfortable, but we never really resolve the betrayal in these relationships. It’s about Frank and his midlife crisis – and how he deals with a terrible event in a way that can only bring more pain to his family.

This show has that essential zippy, pacey feel, with naturalistic dialogue, jags of humour and jolts of surprise in the writing, and real energy and verve in ensemble playing and direction. Ofield and O’Neill’s cast bicker and bitch, blending heartfelt soul searching and an entertaining physicality.

Looking forward to the award announcements.

The Rialto til June 2

Philippa Hammond