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.

Review: Scratch the Surface: The World Today at the Hen and Chickens

Instinct Theatre’s first new writing night at the Hen and Chickens brought together four pieces of work around the theme “The World Today”. It’s a broad topic, and the plays being showcased were, unsurprisingly, pretty diverse. From the personal to the political, it was an evening of high quality new writing, with uniformly strong performances. Interestingly, regardless of their subject matter each of the four captured an element of both comedy and tragedy – which I suppose is very much like the world today. And more importantly, they all left me wanting to see more.

First up was Besides The C by Francesca Mepham, in which a young woman recently diagnosed with cancer struggles to cope in the face of her boyfriend’s cold indifference. The strength of this play, directed by Michelle Payne, lies in its balanced view; there’s no doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on, and James (John Dayton) freely admits his primary concern is how Natalie’s news affects him. But his honesty, and the fact he’s allowed to have a say at all, is actually quite refreshing – and at the same time, Natalie (Leanne Petitt) isn’t perfect either; terrified of being alone through her cancer treatment, she stays with James despite knowing they don’t have a future. So who’s using who?

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This was followed by another equally insightful perspective on a flawed relationship, in Jonathan Skinner’s Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow. Directed by Hilary Burns, the play introduces us to a nameless couple (Felicity Huxley-Miners and Harrison Trott) forced to confront the fact they’re officially on the rocks. It’s much lighter in tone than the previous play – and provided arguably my favourite quote of the evening: “This is like walking through mud in flip flops” – but there’s a feeling of sadness too as the couple teeter on the edge, taking progressively more savage swipes at each other. Whether they hang on or go over… we’ll have to wait to find out.

The evening then took a turn towards the political in Guerrilla Kingdom by Saria Steyl, in which two young women carry out a terrorist attack. Or at least they would, if they could stop bickering and remember which button to press. Under the direction of Thomas Attwood, Laura Lawrence and Marina Tapakoudes give two brilliant comic performances as the incompetent rebels, but behind the laughter there’s sincere passion. We don’t know exactly who or what the women are fighting against, but an emotional recital of their mission statement shows how deeply their cause matters. And as with any play involving an explosive device, there’s also a certain degree of suspense involved…

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Finally, we enjoyed an excerpt from Tea and Good Intentions by Felicity Huxley-Miners, directed by Dominique Gerrard. Student Elizabeth (Lily Driver) arrives home from uni to discover her mum’s taken in a Syrian refugee, much to the scandalised delight of the neighbours. While the play pokes good-natured fun at the misguided intentions of the middle-aged Margaret (Catharine Humphrys) and Mary (Erin Geraghty), it also makes a serious political point about what makes someone leave everything and become a refugee (hint: it’s not our benefit system). Yusuf Bhaimia gives a particularly powerful performance as the nonplussed Adar, who seems at first sight to have swapped one kind of trauma for another.

Each of the four plays featured in Scratch the Surface is complex and sensitively written, exploring different aspects of the world we live in. With enjoyable hosting from actor and presenter Paul Lavers and lively discussion in the bar afterwards, the scratch night was undoubtedly a big success; hopefully it’s the first of many.

Review: Actor Awareness scratch night

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about Actor Awareness. Run by Tom Stocks, the campaign was set up two years ago to fight for equality and diversity in the arts, regardless of background. Last Monday, Actor Awareness presented their first scratch night, featuring six new short plays all based around the theme of working class. I bought my ticket because a friend had written one of the plays, and it was a really enjoyable evening, with a fascinating selection of plays and some brilliant performances.

The scratch night took place at the Canal Cafe Theatre, an intimate setting perfect for this kind of event. After each play, the audience were invited to give feedback – good or bad – to help the actors, writers and directors going forward. This had the potential to be a bit awkward, particularly if the feedback wasn’t all good, but it was all very constructive, and all the comments were taken in the spirit in which they were intended.

One of the most interesting aspects of the night was how varied the submissions were; if I hadn’t known in advance what the common theme was, I’d never have guessed. And they also covered the whole spectrum of emotions – from laugh out loud comedies like R(ex)ception and Netflix and Chill with Bae, to heartbreaking dramas C’est la Vie and 9 Cans and a Quarter Bottle.

We began with R(ex)ception, a short but very funny piece written by Francesca Mepham and directed by Adam Morley, about two co-workers, who also just happen to be exes. Naturally, hilarious awkwardness ensues as they try to work out their differences, in a very public forum. In addition, the play makes clever use of a third actor to separate the scenes and involve the audience in the story. My only complaint was that it was over too soon; the banter between the two exes was brilliant and I wanted to see more.

R(ex)ception by Fran Mepham
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Next was Garnet and Gordon, an intense and powerful play written by Francesca Wright and directed by Gaz Wilson. This is one I think we can all relate to; we’ve all had someone we’d rather avoid sit down next to us at the station or bus stop. But what’s interesting about this piece is how both the main characters clearly have more going on than initially meets the eye. I’d love to see the story developed further and get to the bottom of how both men found themselves sitting on that bench.

C’est la Vie, written and directed by Stephanie Perry, is an extract from a longer play about three couples (though we only saw two in this excerpt). The piece examines love through the eyes of each couple, and follows them through the ups and downs of their relationships, until a tragic set of circumstances brings them together. This play was really well acted, but just seeing an excerpt meant it was hard to properly get into it or know at what point of the story we’d come in. I’d love to see the full play, though, as it was clearly heading in an interesting direction.

C'est la Vie by Stephanie Perry
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Act 2 opened with 9 Cans and a Quarter Bottle, written and directed by Seamus Mcnamara. Along with a few other members of the audience, I didn’t completely follow what was going on with this one until the writer explained, at which point a lot of things suddenly made sense. Nonetheless, it’s still a very hard-hitting and moving piece, which was constructed from real accounts of living with drug addiction. The play’s an interesting mix of emotional, hilarious and just plain odd; I’d love to watch it again now, having had some insight into what it’s all about.

Family Estate, written and directed by Lawrence Crane, is a snapshot of life for a couple struggling to make ends meet – again, something many people can relate to. As he prepares to go out on a risky job (details of which remain unclear), she tries to talk him out of it. The back and forth argument is clearly one they’ve had many times before, and there’s a sense of things escalating. This play, too, feels like the beginning of a longer piece; it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving the audience eager to know what happens next.

And finally, Netflix and Chill with Bae, written and directed by the show’s organiser, Tom Stocks. After some pretty heavy material, it was great to end the evening on a lighter note; this play is very funny because it’s totally real. We’ve all been on bad dates, and we’ve all experienced that inner monologue analysing every detail of what’s going right or wrong. What’s great about this play is that its characters are instantly likeable, and by the end you’re really rooting for them to get together, even though on paper they seem totally mismatched.

Netflix and Chill with Bae by Tom Stocks
Photo credit: Alishia Love

The next Actor Awareness scratch night has already been announced for February, and the theme is ‘Women’s night‘. So if you’re a female writer or director and fancy sending in a play on that theme that’s under 15 minutes long, this is your chance… Visit the Actor Awareness website for more details.

Also, a quick plug for my friend Fran Mepham’s play, R(ex)ception, which is going to be performed again at the Bread and Roses Theatre on April 3rd, so look out for more details on that.