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.

Review: How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

According to Cancer Research, around 1 in 135 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime. Maybe that makes it sound like the odds are in our favour – but what if you’re the one?

Written and directed by Stephanie Silver, How To Save A Life is the story of Melissa (Heather Wilkins), who’s just learned she’s got cervical cancer after going to the doctor with an embarrassing and apparently minor complaint. The play follows her through her journey and explores how her diagnosis affects her relationship with those closest to her – in particular, her boyfriend Toby (John Mark Slade) and best friend Maria (Katerina Robinson).

The first surprise is how funny the play is; Melissa is an engaging central character who’s not afraid to (over)share intimate details about her life, and who, despite her immediate fears that as a cancer patient she’ll never smile again, still manages to find silver linings to her condition. All the Spice Girls dance routines, gap year plans and glitter cannons in the world, though, can’t quite distract us – or Melissa – from the sobering reality of what’s happening to her, as with each new doctor’s appointment the prognosis gets a little worse. Heather Wilkins’ performance captures really well the growing sense of panic that constantly intrudes, despite Melissa’s best attempts to smother it, and we feel each new blow right along with her.

How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

Some of the play’s most poignant scenes are shared moments with Toby and Maria, who never leave her side (literally; both John Mark Slade and Katerina Robinson remain on stage throughout, filling in all the other roles and ensuring the right prop is always to hand). Though it’s initially heartwarming to see their unwavering support, as the play goes on it begins to make things worse, because Melissa’s all too aware of how much she means to them and what it’ll be like for them to lose her. Should the play be developed into a full-length piece – and let’s hope it is – it would be great to see this complex relationships angle explored in more depth.

Perhaps inevitably, given that it was written by a medical professional, the play’s immediate impact is also to educate its audience about the symptoms to look out for, and the importance of cervical cancer screening. Far from lecturing, however, it does this very naturally through Melissa, as she not only shares what initially led her to consult the doctor but also reflects on the other earlier signs she brushed off as “normal”. As a woman in the audience, it’s almost impossible not to be affected or go away with a heightened awareness of the risks.

It’s still early days for How To Save A Life, which is performed at Theatre N16 this week as part of the Catapult new writing festival – but already there’s a huge amount of potential in this short but impactful piece. If nothing else, it should encourage more people to go for screening, but it’s also a deeply poignant look at one young woman’s devastating personal journey through a cancer diagnosis and beyond. I hope we’ll see more of it in the future.

Interview: Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest

Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom are the co-founders of Thematic Theatre, a company they set up last year to specialise in new writing. Next week they’ll open their debut production, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest, at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. Written by Laura and directed by Liam, the play follows the effects of anxiety and workplace bullying on the central character, Jenna, and the toll it ultimately takes on her health.

Laura, who also plays Jenna, has previously had work performed at Theatre 503, The Churchill Theatre and The Tabard Theatre. Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest is her first full production, and was inspired by a conversation with her mum: “Around a particularly stressful exam period, she told me it was ok to ‘take the superwoman outfit off once in a while’ and look after myself rather than trying to be all things to all people. It’s always stayed with me and the message is the essence of the show really, that it’s impossible to be everything to everyone.”

As a new company making their debut, Laura and Liam are looking forward to sharing their show with audiences within their local area, and taking the opportunity to start a conversation about mental health. “We hope that audiences will empathise with Jenna, but mostly it’s about raising awareness for mental health. We’re so happy that we’re fundraising for Mind because it’s a charity that’s very close to both our hearts.

The two friends graduated last year from Italia Conti, where they decided to set up their own company – and Thematic Theatre was born. “We knew that we enjoyed working together as creatives and we were both passionate about creating new work for ourselves, so we thought a theatre company would be a great route to go down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as we can and make contacts with others who share the same passion as us. We’ve both been involved in many scratch nights and new writing festivals and we believe they are great platforms for creatives. We want to offer these same opportunities to others and we aim to do this through our own new writing event ‘Box of Themes’, where we pick out a theme and then get writers/ directors and actors to create a short piece based around it.”

Both founders agree that starting their own company has been both exciting and challenging: “The biggest challenge has been trusting our work and making sure it’s sensitive to the subject matter. We’re very excited about it but as it’s our first time producing we naturally have moments of doubt. It’s also very expensive putting on a show so there’s always money to consider, and balancing rehearsals and promotion alongside our other jobs.

“Creatively, though, it’s been amazing. We both work well together and we’ve enjoyed the freedom and fun we’ve had in the rehearsal room – there’s equal control and it’s relaxed since we’re good friends. There’s always been that mutual trust and respect there so we’ve been able to be totally honest about whether something works or not from the get go; that’s something we’re both really thankful for.”

Following next week’s short run at the Bread and Roses, Laura and Liam are looking ahead to the show’s future. “We plan to take it to The Vaults and the Edinburgh fringe next year. We’re really happy with where the play is at the moment and we want to use this run in London to get an idea of how audiences react and develop it even more.”

Review: Monolog at Chickenshed

The first time I went to Chickenshed was just over a month ago, to see a cast of hundreds in their Christmas show, Rapunzel. My second visit, in dramatic contrast, was an altogether quieter affair: Monolog, as the name suggests, is an evening of solo performances in the intimate Chickenshed studio. Artistic Director Lou Stein has put together a programme that simultaneously celebrates two of the nation’s favourite writers – Alan Bennett and Diane Samuels – and showcases original work from new voices within the Chickenshed community.

In a twist to the format, every audience will see a slightly different show; there are six new plays altogether, but only two will be performed on any given evening. In addition, the second monologue of the night, Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, will be performed on alternate days by 15-year-old Lucy-Mae Beacock and the “somewhat older” Belinda McGuirk (I’m not being rude, that’s what it says in the programme) – who also performs the first piece, Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. Got all that?

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Our particular programme began with Belinda McGuirk as Lesley in Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. She’s a likeable but naive actress who thinks she’s got her big break in a movie, but can’t see how she’s being manipulated into doing everything she always swore she’d never do. This is a well-timed revival of Bennett’s brilliantly written monologue – originally performed by Julie Walters for TV’s Talking Heads – which shines a light on the treatment of women in the showbiz industry, while also addressing the question (one we’re all getting far too used to hearing these days) of why any self-respecting woman would possibly choose to go along with such behaviour.

The evening continued with Lucy-Mae Beacock in Diane Samuels’ This Is Me. Less a play, more a series of snapshots, the piece is made up of snippets from Samuels’ unpublished autobiography. But – once again – there’s a twist; each memory is written on a piece of cloth and handed out to the audience, thus giving us the power to decide which stories we hear and in what order. Far from appearing daunted by the prospect of a constantly changing script, however, teenager Lucy-Mae Beacock gives an impressively assured and engaging performance. She never once hesitates or stumbles, and brings a youthful innocence to the words and memories of a woman more than three times her age.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Of the six pieces of new writing commissioned, we were treated first to Last Piece of the Sun, created by Alesha Bhakoo, Dave Carey and Milly Rolle. A deceptively light-hearted opening leads us quickly into rather more serious territory, as a young woman in her 20s reflects on the life-changing consequences of a one night stand. The short piece is beautifully performed by Alesha Bhakoo, and packs quite the emotional punch just when we least expect it.

The final piece of this particular evening was the intriguing I Find Love in a Bin, written by Peter Dowse and directed by Tiia Mäkinen. The short piece features Sarah Connolly as a woman who has, quite literally, just found love in a bin at Waterloo Station. The discovery both delights and troubles her, and sparks a flurry of questions and emotions; she has no idea whose love it is, and knows only that it doesn’t belong to her – however much she might want it to.

Both of these new pieces will be performed again – though not necessarily together – as the run continues. The only downside of the mix and match format is that we don’t get to see all six, although hopefully there’ll be further opportunities in the future to see the ones we missed: Dinner With My Dead Dad, Sands of Time, The Creature in the Dark and Walls Like Paper.

Where Rapunzel was big, loud and colourful, Monolog proves that a good story well told by a single voice can have just as big an impact as a stage full of people. More than that, though, the show is an exciting opportunity to see the talent being nurtured within the Chickenshed community. A thoroughly entertaining – and unique – evening.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Actor Awareness Best of Scratch 2017

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks two years ago to fight for more equality, diversity and working class talent in the arts, has continued to go from strength to strength this year. Alongside regular scratch nights and the return of their annual new writing festival, the team have also found time to make an award-winning documentary, The Acting Class, which features the likes of Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston and Julie Hesmondhalgh. Needless to say, they have a lot to look back on as the year comes to an end, and they chose to mark the occasion by revisiting four of the best new plays performed at Actor Awareness scratch nights during 2017, in a best of evening hosted by actor and singer Stephanie Houtman.

The first of the four plays, selected from the Women’s Night back in March, was Come Die With Me by Vicki Connerty, directed by Shaadi Rad. Newly widowed Helen (Stella Ross) has decided to get her husband embalmed and keep him in her living room until the funeral, much to the dismay of daughter Rachel (Charlotte East) and morbid fascination of son David (Jack Spencer). This thoroughly enjoyable extract from the now 60-minute play is laugh-out-loud funny but somehow still feels very grounded in reality, touching on the fears and worries that all of us face when we lose a loved one.

Next was the altogether more sinister 2022, a dystopian drama written and directed by Colleen Prendergast, about a post-Brexit British Muslim ban.  Selected from the Race, Religion and Culture night, the play sees young mother Selwa (Lauren Santana) trying to convince border guards Colquhoun (Deborah Wastell) and Gower (Richard Innocent) to let her and her baby cross – before events take an unforeseen turn. It’s a very timely piece that, given recent events here and in the States, feels frighteningly probable and challenges us to question our own assumptions. That said, the play is also very funny – Richard Innocent and his ever more depressed facial expressions are particularly fun to watch.

Assumptions are also challenged in the pick from Political Night, Stephanie Silver’s Our Big Love Story, a tale of four teenagers (Holly Ashman, Maria Kolandawel, Alex Britt and Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and a teacher (Arjun Bhullar) affected by the 2005 London bombings. Directed by Calum Robshaw, the play explores various themes including faith, prejudice, love and the radicalisation of young people – which is a lot to try and squeeze into a fifteen-minute extract. The full-length piece is set for a run at The Hope Theatre next March, and it will be interesting to see how all the different stories and ideas come together given more time.

Last but by no means least Michelle Payne’s Full Circle, which was first performed at the Mental Health Night, presents a movingly honest account of living with depression. Nicole (Elicia Moon Murphy) starts a peer support group in the hope of making some friends, but gets a little more – or should that be less – than she bargained for when just two people show up: Amy (Kate Kelly), who’s always angry, and Skye (Lucy Gape), who treats everything as a big joke. The play combines humour and tragedy as the three very different women begin to build a tentative friendship, with each sharing her own unique experience with depression – a useful reminder that mental illness can affect everyone differently, and that it isn’t always obvious to the outside world.

The four plays were sandwiched between two new comedy sketches from Brittle Britain by Tom Stocks, which takes a sharply satirical swipe at the sorry state of our nation. From a general election campaign featuring the WGAF party (I’ll let you figure that one out) to playing the Immigration Game to avoid deportation, it’s all quite surreal but – depressingly – very much inspired by actual events.

The fact that most, if not all, of the plays showcased during the evening have gone on to be developed into full-length work and performed elsewhere is a good indication of the quality on display. This evening of strong performances and thought-provoking writing is a fitting round-up of a successful year for Actor Awareness; I look forward to seeing what 2018 has in store.

To find out more, visit the Actor Awareness website or follow @actorawareness.