Review: The British Theatre Challenge at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

The British Theatre Challenge was founded in 2012 by Sky Blue Theatre Company to support playwrights by giving them the opportunity to see their work professionally produced, directed and performed. This year’s five finalists have been whittled down from over 200 entries, and presented to audiences at the Brockley Jack over five evenings this week. Each night, the audience is asked to rank the plays in order of preference, with the overall winner – announced tonight – taking home the Anne Bartram Playwright Award. We were asked to cast our vote based not on the acting or directing, but on the quality of the writing alone. In keeping with this instruction, my review will do the same.

Three of the plays followed a similar theme, taking a look at how technology could shape the future – and funnily enough, the future doesn’t look great in any of them… In 2045 by Scott Lummer, a family prepare for The Transformation, a global programme that aims to combine all human bodies with machines. But what seems like a great idea to reduce consumption of limited resources can’t resolve the fact that people are people, and that even with mechanical bodies they still bring with them the potential for conflict and inequality. Like all the plays, 2045 is short – less than half an hour – but even in that limited time shows strong character development and gives us plenty to think about – though not all of it is particularly encouraging.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Tagged by Jim Moss takes an equally dark view of our relationship with technology as we meet Allie, who’s been kidnapped and locked in a room where she’s forced to meet clients and ensure they have “exquisite encounters”. If she objects, the cuff on her ankle injects her with a drug to make her comply. Moss skilfully builds the tension and keeps us guessing until the final twist; when Allie’s latest client turns out to be a police officer, we learn the truth about how she got there – and it’s all the more shocking because it’s a situation any one of us could easily get ourselves into, even today.

Far less dark but still with a bit of a sinister edge, Elspeth Tilley’s Bunnies and Wolves takes an extreme view of what a public-private healthcare system could look like. Riley and Casey’s daughter has been admitted to hospital, but it turns out everything, from the ability to purchase a cup of coffee to the quality of their daughter’s treatment, depends entirely on how many points they can earn on the in-house marketing programme. Though the play rapidly spirals from vaguely feasible to utterly surreal, it nonetheless makes some shrewd points about the consumer-driven society in which we live – and brings home more powerfully than ever how lucky we are in the UK to have the NHS.

Sheila Cowley’s Teatime is set in the ruins of a library during an unnamed conflict, and focuses poignantly on the ways in which human beings adapt to traumatic circumstances. When Kim stumbles into the library looking for an exit, she meets Archie and Annabelle, who live in an entirely imaginary world where everything’s fine – although we learn, in snatched asides, that both have suffered terrible losses as a result of the war. In its current form, it’s hard to really get to know the characters and appreciate what they’re going through before the play comes to an end; I’d love to see a longer version that tells us more.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Finally, easily the most emotional play of the five is Accident of Birth by Trevor Suthers.It follows the first meeting between Margaret and Anthony since she gave him up for adoption as a baby – a meeting that takes place at Broadmoor, where he’s detained at her Majesty’s pleasure for undefined crimes. What begins as an awkward but – in the circumstances – reasonably affable reunion becomes more and more uncomfortable as Anthony tries to make sense of who he’s become by finding out more about his biological parents from an unwilling Margaret. This gripping contribution to the nature versus nurture debate doesn’t give us the answers to all his questions, but it does tell us just enough to ensure we’re completely caught up in and moved by their encounter.

Taking all the plays together, this year’s British Theatre Challenge – hosted by Sky Blue Theatre’s John Mitton – made for a really enjoyable evening of new writing. Like everyone else I cast my vote at the end of the evening, but regardless of tonight’s outcome, all five pieces absolutely deserved their place on stage and will, I hope, be seen by audiences again in the future.

For more details about the British Theatre Challenge, visit the Sky Blue Theatre website.

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