Short Play Festival 2019 - Review

New Venture’s got form with profiling new work, and this latest incarnation is the best formula yet. The Short Play Festival

presents just three plays, so not slivers or sketches: works by mentored writers, helmed by experienced directors. Two serious plays about 35 minutes each followed after an interval by a slightly longer comedy.

It’s a necessarily unfussy space – set design’s by Simon Glazier and George Walter. Each is filled with period material. Lighting and rigging’s by Strat Mastoris and this time kept simple with fade up and down from black, operated by Sam Frost. Sound design and costumes are by the directors: Ian Amos, Chris Gates, Mark Wilson and (for sound design) Ian Black too.

Sarah Drew Hope That Plays a Tune Alone

Sarah Drew’s a graduate of the University of Wales scriptwriting MA course and has acted at NVT and BLT for several years. Mark Wilson directs this moving piece that seems straight out of the world of Barbara Pym: an English village, 1946, Kitty (Victoria Thomson) a young war widow’s shy desire is prised out of her by Elsa (Emmie Spencer) her sexually assured friend. And Matt Davies’ Father Andrew is due round. That’s the only detail that puzzles: a Catholic priest isn’t usually at the heart of any village community. It’s essential for the plot though and though it’s plausible it’s the emotional truth that counts. Mark Wilson direct with assurance and the pacing’s spot-on.

Drew with her director and actor manage that in hearts rather than spades. The interaction with Thomson – new to NVT and returning in the next play – and the always excellent Spencer is both touching and funny. Dialogue’s natural and witty – a moment of carrots not dug for victory (spades again) but by the vanquished POW might go into a carrot cake with the weeks; sugar rations for the Church fete.

The Theatre Upstairs is visited with 1940s Utility furniture and natty sideboard. There’s a few vegetables on show, and vestiges of land army headscarves and postwar cardigans frame a time when austerity not a matter of policy choice.

Thomson’s reactions – skittishly sly with Spencer and genuinely embarrassed to be smoked out, shift dramatically when Father Andrew shows up. He announces a decision and Thomson holds us as her reaction changes with barely-contained silence. The reaction between all three is tangible, believably real. Davies plays his eager naïve perhaps perceptively evasive role with a neat sense of boundaries (he’s not the only priest in these plays). Spencer, so sued to empathic roles manages to suggest a naturally sympathetic quick person whose eagerness keeps bestraying her good intentions. It’s Thomson’s reactions we remember most, and the dialogue of the women. At the outset Thomson’s dancing with someone, and we return to this at the end, realizing what it means.

A quiet heartbreaker, a genuinely affecting play. It’d work well on television where its naturalism and quiet integrity would perhaps suit it best.

Michelle Donkin Agency

There’s something of the same naturalism in this more contemporary play following. Directed by Ian Amos it’s a paly of brinkmanship, as Thomson returns in a wholly different role of government or party SPAD who’s spilled the beans, admitted to a certain amount of wrongdoing to get at her party leader. James Bennison’s Sam, with whom she’s had an affair is appalled. He’s staying on and her quitting might make for a few uncomfortable moments as the media wait, but what of loyalty?

She could be recording him, she taunts and at one point invites him to let her strip and find out, wouldn’t he like that? There’s a telling to and fro which never seems too long though similar ground is covered from different angles. This could be anything from opposition to the party gong to war to a dramatic defection just as they’re on the point of leverage and power. Thomson’s playful, hard, cajoling, occasionally tender. It’s clear she has more feeling for Sam than she admits to at first. And as for Sam, Bennison plays him as the more hapless individual. If he recorded her, even now, they’d say the same and forget her, sexism being what it is.

The space is neatly taken with later modern office chairs and a typical work-departing cardboard box on a previous dining table containing a sad cactus, fronds, and personal bric-a-brac. Thomson’s versatility, her equal assurance here starkly contrasts with her previous role. Bennison plays up against this assurance with some nice deceptive moves – not least aiming paper balls at a bin and sometimes missing. A watchable, compelling piece of office sexual politics, with more at stake.

Judy Bignell Match and Matrinomy

The Jane Austen parody is graced with a rather modern red chaise-longe (1980s style, not trad.) and a few chairs. Judey Bignell’s play is a delicious sincere homage: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are both cheerfully referenced. The ide was to have six daughters but here we have two, and one man – Chris gates who also directs – plays many (four) parts.

Gates as white-wigged Mr Phelps and the ever-volatile Justine Smith as Mrs Phelps seem just like the Bennetts. Their daughter Evelyn (Emma Lillie Lees) has all the great lines: she’s after Mr Cox, whereas her parents would prefer moneyed Mr Mitchell (same men, black and red coats respectively).

Sydney the younger daughter however likes Mr Andrews the vicar, a benign but idiotic Mr Collins (though his proposal is given to Mr Mitchell to plague Evelyn with). The only slight impediment is that Chris Knight’s Sydney is really the son but brought up amongst women passes for one. The dull Mt Andrews has no idea, but they both seem equally enamoured.

Meanwhile Evelyn’s given rather a lot of herself to Mr Cox. ‘You’ve already give e a lock of your hair’ Cox reminds Evelyn ‘But this hair is different’ she hints with delicious intent. Sill on Mr Cox vanishing Evelyn pines and will have nothing to do with rich Mr Mitchell or his red coat. ‘I want Cox’ she ripostes. No arguing with that.

Lees is delightful as the lustful frustrated young woman, her sister/brother Sydney is nicely gawky Chris Knight, a smaller role, appealingly funny when explaining why it’s so hard to be a girl. Smith’s OTT Mrs Phelps has a tricky job doing an Alison Steadman with her permanent attack of the vapours, and is vocally on full volume throughout. Parody of a parodic character is never easy though a touch more shade in voice at least might ground it.

Smith though has the hardest part, required to overreact throughout. Gates manages a tour-de-farce of voices, including Andrews’ northern one, and the more RP Cox and Mitchell as well as the weary Mr Phelps. He plays up the role-changes by adopting that new practice of letting the audience see he’s changing roles. All this and directing too.

The end of the play is a kind of quick-change farce of three male characters. I’m not quite sure how this play wants to end. We’ve had the conclusion of Some Like It Hot but not at the end. We’re cheated of poor Evelyn. We want Cox too. In the best sense this reminds one of Morecombe and Wise’s longer sketches.

None of these plays is exactly theatrical but two could make the transition to TV easily. The third, more sheerly theatrical tips to burlesque without embracing it and the balance seems right. It’s just that it ends with a Noises Off moment and doesn’t truly resolve.

Austen herself got there first with Love and Freindship, a misspelt little masterpiece of adolescent high jinks written at 15 with illegitimate children and heroes coming in absurdly on cue; and crusty grandfathers shooting heroines dead. It’s as if Austen parodied herself before she found what she was parodying. A dramatization of that, One Fatal Swoon by Carole Bremson and Mary Nelson, played at several venues including the Jermyn Street Theatre throughout 1994-95.

These are all assured pieces, with writing consistently stronger and more developed than previously. That’s partly because of the span but in all cases the truth of the dialogue holds, and it’s fluent, authentic of its time, and rarely exceeds its brief. Hope is genuinely affecting, Agency alert and tricksy, with Match and Matrimony linguistically brilliant and mostly pure theatre.

That last play makes more demands of itself and is a superb parody, memorable, pithy and too good to leave on a downbeat. Worth 110 minutes of any July evening.

Published