Review: Scratch the Surface: The Female Playwright at The Bread and Roses Theatre

The third Scratch the Surface event from Instinct Theatre produced a collection of five very different pieces, with one thing in common: they were all created by women. Covering a range of themes from mental illness to manspreading, the evening brought together an enjoyable and innovative showcase of new writing talent.

Written and performed by Amelia Sweetland, Sharp Edges (directed by Nathan Theys) got the ball rolling with a portrayal of anxiety that’s all too recognisable. Sophie’s having a party, even though she doesn’t really want to – but she’s invited her boss and can’t back down now, despite being almost paralysed by anxiety. And the only person she can talk to about it all… is herself. Gentle humour and extreme Britishness collide with the desperate poignancy of a young woman who knows her irrational fears and lifelong need for perfection are holding her back, but is powerless to get past them.

The second piece, #iAmResilient by Lucrezia Pollice, was easily the most ambitious, combining theatre with audiovisual content to paint a picture of millennial life. Using a screen to show us text, Tinder and Facebook conversations is an inspired touch, given that most of us probably have more interactions on screen than in person these days. That said, future performances could definitely benefit from a bigger screen, to allow everyone to see what’s happening. The piece covers several themes but its main focus falls on Maria, and an honest exploration of the impact of her mental health issues on her relationship with her housemates. #iAmResilient has some interesting ideas, but definitely feels like a snippet of a longer piece, so it will be interesting to see how it develops from here.

Maternity by Stephanie Silver is a comedy, but even this very funny piece has a sting in the tail. Laura’s about to leave work to have a baby, but is anxious that she won’t make a good mum. Even so, her well-intentioned friend Kate is determined to give her a good send-off, whether she wants one or not. In a clever twist, the play sets up the two characters then, without warning, turns our opinions of them on their head. We’re still laughing, but now it’s tinged with a hint of sadness on one hand, and shock on the other. Even so, Laura’s honesty about her fears – however exaggerated in this case – is actually quite refreshing in a world that constantly sells the idea all women are natural mothers.

Saturday Night (directed by Laura Clifford), one of six monologues from Francesca Mepham’s collection No One Wants a Pretty Girl, finds Amber sitting alone at home watching Doctor Who. She’s just split up from her boyfriend (again) and can’t seem to connect with her friends, who just want to go out every weekend rather than catch up with her. A short but heartfelt monologue about loneliness and not quite fitting in, this is a piece of writing that reaches out to anyone who’s ever found themselves in Amber’s shoes – getting pulled back into an unhealthy relationship just for the sake of feeling loved.

And finally, the evening ended on a raucous note with Manspreading by Laura Hall (directed by Niamh Handley-Vaughan), in which the drunken conversation of three young women on a night out turns to the antisocial habit that is manspreading. More specifically, they’re outraged by the fact that it should be the exclusive domain of men – like Yorkie bars all over again, as one of them points out. It’s all very lighthearted and over-the-top, but the play does raise some interesting discussion points about gender roles and differing social interpretations of male and female body language, which seem particularly relevant in light of recent media events.

It’s always interesting to see new writing at such an early stage in its development, and on this occasion particularly exciting to see it all coming from female playwrights. Once again, Instinct Theatre have put together an  evening that provided its audience with plenty of food for thought, but also five talented writers to keep our eye on in the future.

For future Scratch the Surface events, follow @InstinctTheatre on Twitter.

Interview: Frankie Meredith, Turkey

Frankie Meredith makes her writing debut this month with Turkey, which opens at The Hope Theatre on 26th September. Directed by Lonesome Schoolboy Productions’ Niall Phillips, it’s a story about one woman’s overwhelming desire to have a baby with her girlfriend – and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get what she wants.

Turkey explores whether this innate need stems from her own biological clock, a grief she experienced as a teen or the expectation to be seen as ‘normal’,” explains Frankie. “It looks at her ability to risk and ruin everything in her life to get the child she so strongly yearns for.”

Though the characters are fictional, Frankie’s inspiration for Turkey was a true story: “It was written when I was on the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab and started out as a six page exercise in scene structure. They told us to write a story based on an old family tale or something that happened within our family. It then became the play that I developed while I was on the course.

“I told the person the story is based on very recently, and they’re thrilled – luckily.”

Frankie feels this is a particularly important story to tell because it confronts issues people otherwise may not think about: “Gay couples having babies is talked about, but what about the morals or dilemmas they face on where they get the sperm from? If you don’t have the money to go to a posh west London clinic who on earth are you going to ask to give you their sperm? Grief is also a big part of this play. It is an issue all the characters are facing and has a huge impact on many of their decisions and actions.”

The play’s central character, Madeline, is far from perfect, and Frankie’s hoping audiences will be able to see past that and understand why she behaves the way she does. “I’ve placed a really strong, manipulative, flawed female at the helm of this play and I want people to empathise with her,” she says. “So often we are quick to label women ‘mental’ or ‘crazy’ when they are just doing what needs to be done to get what they want. Madeline doesn’t commit any crimes, she isn’t evil, she’s just human. I would like audiences to not judge her for what she does.

“The play’s also funny – I hope – and relatable. There’s a lot of food and Netflix references to keep it all relevant. And though we don’t all identify with turkey basting, love, grief and desire are all emotions we experience and connect with – so there will be some part of this play that is relatable and relevant to you.”

Having been very involved in the casting process, Frankie is looking forward to seeing the three actors – Pevyand Sadeghian, Cameron Robertson and Harriet Green – bring her words to life on stage. “The cast are phenomenal! I’m so excited to see what they do with the text. Pevyand (Madeline) we found through an open casting; she was actually the first one through the door and we fell in love with her. Cameron Robertson has worked with Niall before, and Niall kept telling me what a wonderful Michael he would make – he was not wrong. He came in to read and was just perfect.

“Finally Harriet Green and I trained at drama school together, she has read numerous drafts of Turkey and was someone I’d go to for help when developing. We asked her to do a self tape and she met Niall for a coffee and a read through. I can’t wait to see what she does with Toni, she has a real magnetism and truth to her performances.”

Frankie herself became involved with Lonesome Schoolboy earlier this year. “I sent this script to Niall and he asked to meet me for a coffee,” she explains. “We met a couple of days later and almost immediately got the ball rolling on staging Turkey. He has a great relationship with Matthew Parker at The Hope and soon we were chatting to him about when Turkey could be on.

“We did a few R&Ds together to develop the script as well as use it as a way to meet new actors. Niall’s energy in a rehearsal or workshop space is pretty special. I’m sure this is the start of a long and happy working relationship.”

Besides Turkey, Frankie has several other projects on the go: “I’ve just finished the first drafts of a couple of scripts. The next step is to get some actors in a room to play around with them and develop the texts further. I’m also currently editing a web series I wrote and directed with my production company MapleRoad Productions. It’s called Becoming Danish and should hit screens early 2018!

“And my first children’s show Saving Peter, about Wendy going back to Neverland to rescue Peter, is on at Theatre N16 in Balham in the last week of October, so we’re gearing up to get started on that.”

Book now for Turkey at The Hope Theatre from 26th September-14th October.

Review: Wet Bread at the King’s Head Theatre

If you’ve found yourself constantly surprised and disappointed over the last twelve months by the results of public votes, you’re not alone; Adele, the protagonist in Tom Glover’s Wet Bread, knows exactly how you feel. A lifelong campaigner, she’s saying and doing all the right things – helping the homeless, going on fun runs, organising sit-ins against fracking (despite not knowing exactly what it is), and most importantly looking down her nose at Tories, Brexiteers, and indeed anyone who doesn’t agree with her. And if that means her relationship with her family is in tatters, she’s ditched the man of her dreams because he eats meat, and the alcoholic homeless guy staying in her flat won’t stop calling her Twinkletits – well, that’s just the price that needs to be paid for being a good person. Right?

Performed by Morag Sims, Wet Bread is simultaneously very funny and often slightly uncomfortable viewing, because while many of the scenarios are just a bit too ridiculous to be realistic, they still touch a nerve in a world where political arguments all too often become personal, and rage just as fiercely on Twitter as they do in Parliament. Adele’s not a bad person; she genuinely longs to change the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but in defending her own beliefs, she’s inadvertently become as intolerant and judgmental as the classic “evil Tory” she’s fighting against. Worse, she’s been so busy fighting everybody that she’s lost sight of what’s going on with the people closest to her.

The play isn’t a criticism of left-wing politics – or right-wing, either; despite Adele’s bitter diatribes against – well, everyone – there’s no suggestion that one side of the political divide is better than the other. If anything, the play’s trying to tone down our increasingly urgent need to politicise anything and everything that happens, and to point out how ridiculous both sides can be. None of which means we have to give up our principles – but maybe, Glover suggests, we should be focusing more on what unites us than on what drives us apart; to stop making everything into a battle and instead try to change the world in small, positive ways.

Sims comfortably owns the stage, skipping through an array of characters, from an enthusiastic fun run organiser (“yay, cancer!”) to Adele’s devastated and petulant niece, who’s just learnt that her birthday present is a goat – and that she doesn’t even get to keep it. Adele herself is a bit like the Bridget Jones of politics: loveable but a bit of a fool, quick to overreact and always taking things just a little too far. It’s a brilliant comedy performance, but a bittersweet finale is delivered with genuine sincerity to ensure Glover’s point is driven home.

Wet Bread is a lot of fun, but it should also make us stop and think – not about what our political views are, but rather why we have them and how we wield them. The main character may in this case be a leftie, but there’s plenty of entertainment and education in this 60-minute production for audiences of all persuasions.

Wet Bread is part of Festival 47 at the King’s Head Theatre – final performance on 13th July.

Interview: Stephanie Martin, Bridle

Now in its third year, new writing showcase #Festival47 kicks off next week at the King’s Head Theatre. Among 19 shows featured in the programme is Bridle from Clamour Theatre, a contemporary satire on female sexuality and the attempts to control it, written by Stephanie Martin.

Bridle is about challenging and rewriting narratives and perspectives on female sexuality and behaviour,” explains Stephanie, who also performs in the show. “It’s about desire, heartbreak, shame, fathers, violence, pornography, millennial culture. It’s about how female sexuality and behaviour are subtly policed and judged.”

Bridle marks Stephanie’s debut as a writer: “I wrote it last May, inspired by the disparity between the people I know in real life and the tropes of behaviour that are defined as ‘good’ or ‘proper’,” she says. “We shared the show for the first time, as a full length piece, at the brilliant Camden People’s Theatre hotbed Festival of Sex in April. Our first sharing saw me performing the piece with other actors, Elissa Churchill and Charlotte Clitherow, and so #Festival47 will be the first time I’ve ever performed it solo – I’ll be heartbroken/lonely and bored without the other two.

“As Bridle is the first thing I’ve ever written, I’m also extremely grateful to EJ and Pip at Pluck Productions, Georgie and Will at Flux Theatre and the Emerge Night, as well as Nastazja Somers and her HerStory baby, for first programming excerpts of Bridle as part of their respective new writing nights in November and December 2016. These three companies are a great example of London’s new writing scene, giving opportunities, support and confidence to new writers and makers.”

Bridle may be about women, but that doesn’t mean it’s only a show for women. “Absolutely not, it’s a show for all,” says Stephanie. “I personally believe we all exist as a gorgeous mismatch of the male and the female, so come as you are and enjoy. Some of the ‘male’ audiences of the past performances seemed a little disconnected or in some way to blame for some of Bridle, which I didn’t predict or imagine at all.

“I want us to all remove shame from our lives, to feel comforted that lots of us go through the same things, to feel okay about being weird and vulnerable. And to laugh at me and laugh at all of us.”

Clamour Theatre describe themselves as “raw, excited and all about today”. Stephanie explains, “We’ve formed to explore new perspectives, new characters, new stories in raw, explosive and enjoyable ways. We love humour, we love energy and we like looking at new stories and/or re-examining the status quo.”

Stephanie will be performing the show at the King’s Head on 11th, 12th and 16th July at 9.30pm. “It’s an honour to be programmed as part of the festival and defined as part of the ‘future of the theatre’, especially by a theatre with a reputation like the King’s Head,” she says. “The rest of the festival line-up looks fab too and we’re looking forward to seeing the other companies. I’ve seen such a huge variety of fab, quality work at King’s Head over the last 4 or 5 years so looking forward to being on that stage, too.”

Book now for Bridle at the King’s Head Theatre, 10th-16th July.

Interview: Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen, Paper Creatures

Paper Creatures is a new London-based theatre company founded by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen. The company’s debut production, Flood, which opens at Tristan Bates Theatre on 31st July, is a comedy drama written by Tom Hartwell (known for recent hits You Tweet My Face Space and Contactless), which shines a light on the millennial generation while examining themes of grief, nostalgia and what it means to leave home – and come back again.

“The play centres around the day’s events in this village at two of the characters’ mother’s funeral, and friends coming back,” says Jon. “We have one character, Adam, who’s never left the hometown and everyone else has, so it looks at the effect that’s had on him and them. We were just fascinated with this idea of why everyone wants to move away from home, where does this come from? But it’s a comedy drama – we wouldn’t get Tom Hartnell on board if it wasn’t going to have its light moments!

“Tom was in the year below me at drama school and I remember having a drink with him and I told him about the potential of this company and how we wanted to look at certain themes. And then he went on tour for a month to a place called Tenbury Wells, where every year it gets flooded and the government has deemed it too small a place to do anything about it. And he was really interested in how that affects the people living there, and especially the millennial demographic – so he wrote Flood.”

While Jon is “a London boy, born and bred”, Nathan knows all too well what it’s like to move away from home. “I’m from Perth, Western Australia – as south as you can get, almost! So there are definitely themes in the play that are very strong for me, and in the rare times I’m able to get home there are scenes that happen in this play, which Tom wrote of his own accord, that have exactly happened to me. I wanted to leave in order to achieve the things I wanted to do with my life – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that in Perth – but it’s fascinating to me to think about identity and where you relate to. Would I call myself a Londoner now? I’ve only lived here five years. It’s an interesting question.”

The decision to focus on the millennial generation was made early on: “We’re very intrigued by this term,” explains Jon. “There’s almost this association now with the millennial generation that we’re addicted to phones, and disconnected from people because we’re so invested in the technologies that are around us. There’s a reason for that – because our lives are on phones and laptops and emailing – but at the end of the day we’re human beings and we still feel, and I think the way we’re portrayed sometimes in the media is that we don’t have those feelings. We wanted to dig deeper and prove that we still grieve, we still laugh, love, we still have secrets.

“But we didn’t want a gimmick with the company either. From the get go we believed that the story should be enough and you should take something away from it – regardless of what the play’s about, there’ll be a moment there. It’s all about the story for us; that’s our USP, I think. I reference theatre to history as well, and the reason we have history is to learn from it. Theatre’s the exact same thing – so we can with new writing tell these stories now so in the future people can look back and see what we were like.”

“I think we’re lucky to have access to so much amazing classical theatre, but I also think classical plays get put on all the time, and it’s incredibly important to continue to create a platform for new writers to come forward,” adds Nathan. “There are never enough new voices and we just wanted to not do anything special or different, but just provide another platform for new writers to have a voice and share their stories.”

Jon and Nathan met on a five-month tour of Much Ado About Nothing with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and bonded over a mutual love of the NBC show Friday Night Lights. “We absolutely adored the show because of the simple storytelling of these country people’s lives in Texas, where their whole lives revolved around their Friday night football game,” says Nathan. “To them it was the be all and end all. And we’d watch it and see a really honest portrayal of people caring about something so much. Then we’d chat about theatre, and when the tour finished we went and saw a lot of theatre together – Chekov, Yerma, Groundhog Day. We started going to some of the fringe theatres and we really got excited there.

“We’re really inspired by other new writing companies like Falling Pennies and Flux, and we wanted to create a place in which creatives and artists from all different aspects of the theatre community – lighting designers, actors, directors, writers, sound designers – could come together and invent. And particularly focusing that on the millennial generation; everyone we’re working with is a young, emerging artist, that’s really exciting for us.”

Jon adds, “And everyone helps each other out. We met up with so many people that we really admire – because we’re still learning every day, it’s not something you can get a degree in, you just have to crack on with it. We kept having these meetings and they were so helpful and honest with us so we could take what we wanted and put our spin on it. So we’re not just mimicking, we’re utilising what we’ve learnt.”

Photo credit: Benjamin Cooper

Even so, starting a theatre company is not without its challenges: “We’re trying our best to make it feel really professional,” says Jon. “It’s that feeling of making our team feel safe so they can just show up and enjoy themselves. And we’re learning about other elements of being in the theatre world like marketing, doing interviews – these are all new to us. I think it’s a really admirable thing when actors do decide to set their own companies up because you’re taking a massive risk.”

“I’ve been fascinated by the learning process of having to trust our own instincts about things,” agrees Nathan. “Things that I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about as an actor, like designing posters, and then standing by your decisions. If you’re an actor in a play you have a director to guide you, but as the producers and the artistic directors we’re the ones calling the shots. It’s very rewarding but also you just have to click and hope – ‘I don’t know if this is right but let’s go for it’! And it’s been really gratifying to have to learn to trust our instincts on that.”

One of the biggest hurdles proved to be deciding on the company’s name, and it took about a month to finally settle on Paper Creatures. “We used to sit and just crack names out; we wanted to make it personal to us,” Jon explains. “The idea behind the name is: the paper is the script, and the creatures are the characters that come from that, the storytelling, and theatre is where we show you that. So the more you think about it, the more it makes sense – instead of thinking about an origami tiger or a swan, it makes so much more sense if you think about story, characters and theatre – just in a more poetic way. So that’s how it came about, but not without a lot of trial and error!”

Finding the right cast and creatives to work on Flood was another new experience, but Jon and Nathan are thrilled with the team they’ve assembled. “Our lighting, sound designer and set designers we’d never met before, so we found them essentially by just talking to people. Georgie Staight is the director – I did a scratch night with her last year, and she was great, then she directed Dubailand at the Finborough and we saw that she really gets a lot out of her actors, so we approached her and she thankfully said yes because she liked the play.”

The cast of five, which includes Nathan, Jon and Tom, is completed by Emily Céline Thomson, who was at drama school with Nathan, and Molly McGeachin, who was introduced by another friend. “That’s a nice element as well, meeting new people – we’ve never met some of them before but already have a great relationship,” says Jon. “It’s quite nice now to let the creatives get on with things and trust that they’ll do a great job, which they will, and we can concentrate on learning our lines!

“We want this to go really well. We want to learn a lot from it and make sure we’re doing it right, so we’re taking our time with it and not rushing into things, we’re making careful decisions – which venue we go for, what time slot, what kind of show we want to put on, what ideas we want for the poster… We’re making sure it’s done in the right amount of time, because the last thing you want when you’re putting on your first show is for it to be stressful and horrible. We want it to be a great experience for everyone involved.”

Nathan adds: “We want it to be fun, not one of those really stressful fringe productions where everybody’s tearing their hair out. We want them to want to do another play with us and be a part of it – that’s the kind of atmosphere we want to create. And we adore people getting in touch with us – actors, all different creatives; we want to create a community, so get in touch with us!”

Finally, why should we come and see Flood? “It’s a world premiere!” says Jon. “I think that’s exciting. So it’s a new piece of writing full of heart and humour, set in a flooded Somerset village, from a new emerging writer and company – what else could you want?”

“I think that theatre is something that’s a bit of a mirror. We go to the theatre to see ourselves or see something new, and I think that Flood will have moments we can relate to, and you’ll learn new things about people you might know,” concludes Nathan. “There will 100% be at least one moment where everybody will sit back and smile and say ‘I totally get that’. And that’s why we go to the theatre.”

Book now for Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre from 31st July-5th August.