OUDS New Writing Festival Reviewed

The OxStu Stage team cover the OUDS New Writing Festival and are impressed with the productions:

The Parakeets (Derek Mitchell) – Katrina Gaffney

Set in the cluttered kitchen of a shared flat, The Parakeets is a play which brings together a plethora of curious and diverse characters under tragic circumstances. As the consequences of a mass shooting in a supermarket unfold, the audience witnesses how each character relates to this event and processes it, whilst carrying on with their own lives. There is a perfect balance of poignancy, humour and even anger in a play that brilliantly captures a variety of different human experiences including love, loss and fear.

What was so special about this play was the characters and the wonderful cast that portrayed them. Lillie, played by Fran Amewudah-Rivers, was an absolute ray of sunshine, a joy to watch on stage; the character brought some light relief in the otherwise dark circumstances. Riya Rana, whilst perhaps lacking a little confidence in her dialogue, did a wonderful job capturing the anger and frustration of her character, who having been born in Baghdad struggles with the identity of the perpetrators of the mass shooting. I also have to mention Derek Mitchell who played the character of Eliot – his dead pan delivery of the character’s lines was perfect. The rest of the cast (Alex Blanc, Kate Weir and Charlie Powell) must also be commended for their performances and the naturalistic way in which they brought their characters to life.

The opening night of The Parakeets was undeniably one of mishaps; one of the actors had been taken ill and was replaced by Derek Mitchell wielding a script, not to mention that towards the end of the play a piece of the set collapsed. And yet, these happenings in many ways complimented the plays charm; The Parakeets may have been a little rough around the edges but it was also a production that felt fresh and exciting, a truly excellent piece of new writing.

Proper Conduct (Ieuan Perkins) – Georgie Murphy 

The plot of Ieuan Perkins’ Proper Conduct is for the main part driven by that which we do not see: the suicide of an unidentified passenger, and a mute, deaf woman locked in the toilet. The three passengers become progressively fixated on finding out how the latter ended up in this situation, concluding that the train conductor murdered her. This rapid turn of events gave Perkins’ script a bizarre, farcical comedy, guaranteeing an engaging show. Yet the way Perkins balanced comedy with seriousness enabled room for depth and complexity. Through the character of Quentin – a hypochondriac whose imagination makes a murder out of a locked toilet – Perkins displays how one individual’s paranoia can impact those around him. The audience is left questioning what is probable and what is completely implausible, and to what extent we can trust in our own judgement in a situation so dependent on doubt. Perkins’ witty, exciting script ensures we too are wound up in the drama.

There is much to be commended for this production. Given the premise of the play – locked in a train carriage – there’s a danger that the blocking could become static and the actors’ movements constrained. Yet director Julia Pilkington did a very good job ensuring this was not the case: actions were simple but the motivation always very clearly defined. Pilkington achieved a strong balance between scenes of a contemplative, measured pace and ones that escalated rapidly, giving the show ample room to build. The final scene of the play was particularly well executed: the writing was very tight, which ensured an energetic yet tense drive fitting for the farcical conclusion. Aspects of design were also effective and I particularly liked the use of sound. The persisting noise of a train subsided when it stopped at the station: this moment of silence gave an uncomfortable, almost eerie stillness.

I was very impressed by the cast. Alex Rugman brought a wonderful energy to his role as the eccentric Quentin. His relationship with Robert (played by Hugh Tappin) was particularly well developed: Tappin brought a sympathetic naivety to his role that hit a stark opposition to Rugman’s lack of self-awareness. For me, the standout performance came from Sophie Badman as Jennifer: the cutting rationalism that Jennifer initially displayed allowed for well-timed moments of dry humour. We were also given very intriguing nods towards each of the characters’ pasts and I think Perkins can afford to give more breathing space to these backstories to avoid a contrived revelation of their histories. Furthermore, the scenes with the conductor (played by Mark Courcy) could benefit from being slightly tighter: some jokes were repeated which made the pace drop slightly. Nonetheless, Perkins has certainly written a very engaging play and Julia Pilkington’s direction should be commended. If given the room for development, I can only predict it going from strength to strength.

Nárkissos (Kat Dixon-Ward) – Megan Husain

This play had potential with some really brilliant ideas, but unfortunately tried to do too much at once, resulting in an unstructured piece. It explores the idea of narcissism in the modern day, weaving in Ovid’s classical story of Narcissus and looking at ‘chronic narcissism’ as a diagnosable disease. At times it tapped cuttingly into pressing issues of self-obsession in the modern era of Facebook. The doctors’ symptoms for this ‘chronic narcissism’ were very recognisable – “the sort of girl who slows down passing shop windows” “her thoughts take the form of status updates”, “she knows the right filters for her skin tone” and “has apps to make her face look thinner”. Questions surrounding the performative nature of self-obsession played interesting into an element of meta-drama, aided by Tony (Daniel Thomson), who plays a failing actor.

However, the stimulating exploration of these themes was undermined by an intrusive narrative. The dialogue was often stilted and acting at times felt laboured and overdone while the staging was similarly difficult with awkward scene changes and music cut off abruptly at the end of scenes. The ‘goldfish bowl’ presentation projected on the wall resulted in the actors turning their backs to us a lot of the time, which was a real shame.

Elements of the play were brilliant: Bea Udale-Smith was fantastic as Cisa, capturing a real sense of vulnerability and confusion with herself. The idea of her ‘double’ reflection – played by Sophie Stiewe, was a clever and engaging addition. The two actresses’ dancing was really beautiful and the physicality of their movements was a highlight of the production. However, overall I felt as if the the play was attempting to do too much – arty dancing, meaningful commentary on mental health and then a narrative along the side. The writer, Kat Dixon-Ward, has done really interesting things looking at obsession with image in the modern era, and traces of great ideas characterised this piece which are begging to be development, but unfortunately the play doesn’t quite bring everything together.

The Optimists (Suzy Cripps) – Katie Carlson

Having been promised “a farcical comedy featuring a Communist plot, an art heist, accidental manslaughter and a flailing amateur football team”, I had high hopes for Suzy Cripps’ The Optimists. On the whole, this was realised. The show had a range of entertaining characters, an intricate storyline, and a host of pithy one-liners which showcased Cripps’ comic potential.

Members of the cast proved adept in their comic timing, physicality, and characterisation, with John Livesey’s Sergei and Lucy Miles’ Sophia proving to be the audience favourites. The strongest moments were those of physical comedy: two people trying to remove a heavy painting from the wall, or a gang having to take a corpse rolled up in a rug to a birthday breakfast celebration. Communism was used effectively, with characters farcically trying to share everything, even marshmallows, exactly equally. Lucy Hayes and Cameron Spain should be proud of their work with the cast.

Cripps’ script gave the audience many laugh out loud moments. The plot was pleasingly complex, bringing together a variety of sub-plots and characters to a multi-layered comic climax. Some of the sub-plots, especially that revolving around a sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship, could have benefited from more breathing space and development to reach their comic potential. Other plot lines relied on stereotypes, such as that of the Russian woman wanting a visa wedding, which somewhat and let down what in most places was a highly intelligent script. Pacing did cause some problems. Longer scenes of exposition and dialogue could benefit from being cut down to maintain a stronger energy and pace: the final scene in particular was very static, which felt anticlimactic. However, with a small amount of editing (and perhaps once opening-night nerves are gone), these issues could be easily remedied.

The design made good use of the limited flexibility and resources available to an NWF show. The range of lighting worked well with the progress and pace of the storyline, and the sound design smoothed transitions, despite perhaps being a little predictable. The set was largely rudimentary and functional, and could have incorporated design more heavily, but it was pleasing to see the BT’s accessible ceiling bars being utilised. There is potential within The Optimists, and with more resources to work with this could be more impressive in its design.

Overall, this was a promising first outing for The Optimists. With some editing, and more time and flexibility than NWF shows have access to, this could be a successful Fringe show or touring production. I look forward to seeing what Cripps does next.