“The audience received four shockingly different short plays in a nurturing and safe environment to try ideas and experiment”Nick Chevis

New writing is one of the joys of theatre and, forgive me my indulgence, new writing by students is perhaps even more exciting. Downing’s Festival of New Writing did not disappoint in that respect. The audience received four shockingly different short plays in a nurturing and safe environment to try ideas and experiment. Theatre really needs spaces like these to encourage the next generations of playwrights “to be brave, be daring and trust themselves,” to quote panellist Adam Leese.

The provision of a panel with space for audience discussion was an especially enjoyable part of the evening; if you are an aspiring writer or interested in theatre in any way, listening to two professional directors and an audience deconstruct and question aspects of the writer’s work can help clarify exactly what theatre is, and what theatre should be. The Festival allows learning, and the panellists regularly offered suggestions of improvement as well as praise which made me confident that all of these plays can live on, be improved, and hopefully we shall see longer, more fully formed versions around Cambridge.

Each of the plays is only performed on one night so future audiences can look forward to plays by Denicia Bernard, Lewis Thomas, Noah Geelan, Tereza Brala and Johannes Black which I am sure will provide just as intriguing and varied an evening as the opening night.

The opening night itself seemed to – again as remarked by a panellist Alex Lass – progress in terms of character and narrative, almost reflecting a progression a writer goes through at the beginning of their work. Beatriz Santos’ Dreamscape was an abstract approach to ideas surrounding pregnancy and loss and surrealism which I am afraid washed over me. Her elevated verse was fascinating and, while most of the imagery passed me by, I did recognise classical allusions. However, more clarity was required over what story was being told, and the piece left a taste of slight pretension, despite the admittedly enjoyable surrealness.

Serena MacMillan treated us to Time and Again, an almost genre heist piece which was entertaining and clearly demonstrated her gift for plot-driven narrative. However, this did set her a great challenge – it was perhaps an idea more easily suited to film but her courage must be admired for managing to successfully stage it – and at times she fell into the trap of characters telling the audience what they already know. Perhaps this, of the whole evening, was the greatest example of a talented writer needing to trust themselves; MacMillan gave us likable character dialogue but, as she admitted herself in the panel discussion, was unwilling to push her play into the farcical. However, the Festival is a space in which she, hopefully, learn to trust her instincts more and will later provide us with a greater version of an already entertaining piece.

Three Parts to Sing by Miriam Balanescu was a well-written study of three characters interacting with a ticket inspector. Balanescu’s premise was intriguing and well carried out: what happens when three strangers, all with the same destination, interact with the same ticket inspector, on the same day? However, we were left in a constant hope that somehow the characters would have some common link revealed and the backstory of the ticket inspector was left frustratingly under developed. This play needs the time to discover the characters interrelations and develop them more. Nevertheless, Balanescu gave us some very well written and studied characters, clearly demonstrating she has talent if perhaps not enough time to take the play where the audience was desperate it should go.

The evening finished with Charlotte Cromie’s Get Home Safe, a stunningly nuanced approach to a often over-simplified situation. Cromie told the story of a young woman, Jan (Naomi Wilson), who has “technically” been raped by her (far soberer) friend, Ellen (Chloe Lansley), on a night out yet doesn’t feel “raped”. Cromie manages to get a heartbreakingly real look at victimhood as well as examining the perpetrator, breaking both stereotypes out of their moulds and bringing us a far more interesting conversation. She manages to give Jan autonomy and power despite being “the victim” and Ellen is shy and timid in spite of being the aggressor. Get Home Safe was written with empathy and understanding, succeeding in provoking an audience into trying to answer the questions posed. Some of the best theatre consistently asks questions of an audience without giving the answers, and this is what Cromie did so well. She demanded that we take a more nuanced approach to a pressing conversation surrounding consent and victimhood, assisted by impressive and subtle performances from Wilson and Lansley, clearly demonstrating her talent as a playwright.

The Downing Festival of New Writing was a varied night where writers were able to experiment and hopefully can now grow pieces beyond what was watched on the night. The future of new writing in Cambridge continues to look pretty bright.

A Festival of New Writing 2018 is on at the Howard Theatre until 10 March

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