All three writers: Pete Barrett, Suzanne Jeans (winner) and Adam Colclough
A REVIEW OF THE PERFORMANCE OF THE THREE FINALIST PLAYS FOR KENNETH BRANAGH AWARDS FOR NEW DRAMA WRITING, 2019 AT THE WINDSOR FRINGE
This is the third time I have reviewed the performance of the three finalists of The Kenneth Branagh Awards for new drama writing. This is the first time that the award for best play (as written) has matched my assessment of the play as performed. I think this is because all the plays had a well-rehearsed and highly competent cast as well as excellent directors. This meant that the play on the page was genuinely transferred to the live performance. This added to the feeling the performances were a genuine reflection of what the authors had intended. That said, the impact on the audience differed for each play.
The first play, One, Two, TREE, was staged in and around a giant tree that was made up of twenty-foot lengths of rope very cleverly arranged towards the back of the stage. A few chestnuts dotted around the floor hinted at the realism of the tree. The actors used the tree to great effect especially in the first of the three scenes.
The two actors, Zoe McVicker and Oliver Joseph-Brooke give an extremely engaging performance as two people who meet (Scene 1), mature and marry (2), and become a loving couple (3). The director, Richard Elson, has constructed a very engaging piece which displays with great clarity the underlying nature of the relationship between these two people created by the writer, Adam Colclough.
The writer captures the essence of a lasting relationship as the couple move from a coquettish engagement in the opening scene through a deeper understanding of their true selves and finally to an unquestioning acceptance. The actors beautifully portray in the initial scene the playful nature of two people who don’t know each other but seem to have a natural understanding of how to make each other smile. They are physically lively and interact with each other and the tree in a most engaging manner.
The middle scene is like real life – a clarity of acceptance of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and a desire to be together for the rest of their lives.
The final scene is the big test as they are now physically older and more slow and deliberate in their movements. They pull it off extremely well and leave the audience with a sense of having reaffirmed the value of such a relationship.
The play affirms the quality of the playwright, director and actors and provides a feeling of security to the audience that will endure long after the performance has ended.
The second play, An Absence Of, is described as semi-biographical by the author, Suzanne Jeans. One doesn’t know what that means but the play performs beautifully. It is a triumphal combination of great writing, acting and direction. The key decision made either by the writer or the director (Anthony Shrubsall) is to sit each of the five actors facing the audience and have them play almost wholly forwards with only occasional looking from one to the other or occasional movement from one to the other. Lighting is used to ensure that the audience is always looking at the correct actor or the correct pairing.
It comes across as a play written from the point of view of the daughter, Sally, played by Sarah Lawrie. She sits between her mother and her husband and provides a kind of dialogue sitting between the common sense of the husband and the dementia of the mother. Her portrayal is a complex combination of acceptance of her role in her mother’s life combined with aggressive annoyance at both her mother and her sister.
The sister, Joanna, played by Sophie Morris-Sheppard provides a striking contrast to Sally’s commitment which at one point is exemplified by her absence from her chair for perhaps ten minutes. When she is there, she tries to explain how she has a life and cannot be trapped by her mother’s predicament.
The mother, played by Barbara Phelps, is a glorious part going from obviously demented to gin clear normality and from a soothing acceptance to a shouting, potted plant throwing insanity. She provides a complete clarity of why her two daughters must choose a mode of reaction which feels like a choice between being trapped and being free.
Into this maelstrom is interjected the final character an ever-understanding nurse, played by Eloise Jones, who captures the deep understanding of the mother’s situation whilst hinting at her own distance from the mother’s world. Perhaps the Welsh accent helps with that distance.
The husband, played by Mike Duran, provides a kind of unattached sanity which gives the whole play an important shape.
The final play was The Ice Queen written by Pete Barrett. It is performed in three spaces, on the stairs of the auditorium, around and on a sofa, and between the main acting area and the audience. Whilst there was little that could directly be criticised in the performance neither was there much that could be praised. The leading lady, Glacia, played by Emily O’Mahony, arrives from the top of the audience, and indeed, this is where she left. There was a different tone to this bit of the play, and one presumes that this was an attempt to make a statement about the play’s title.
She arrives into the household, her face bedecked with glitter, where the mother, played by Pauline Pericaud, makes excuses for having to leave and tries to get Glacia to act as a stand-in mother. The initial part of the play is an evocation of Glacia’s busyness with a laptop computer being used to give the impression of a busy woman. Essentially this works and one senses the difficulty the two children have with the situation.
Eloise Jones plays the daughter and we know from her role as the nurse in the previous play that she is an excellent actress. In this play though she seems a little less secure. Her brother is played by Thomas Deller. He has relatively few words but has to emote a lot. Again, there is little to directly criticise, but the performance does not quite work.
This actor also plays an intruder who is overwhelmed by the mother and threatened with dire consequences if he returns. The physicality of this scene is interesting but sadly its main impact is to crumple the carpet which remains almost until the end of the play. Meanwhile some of the glitter on Glacia’s face has detached leaving the audience a little underwhelmed.
I would have to admit that I was unsure by the end of what the play was trying to do – a question for Paula Chitty, the director to reflect on.
The final judging of the written plays was made by the two judges, Andrew C. Wadsworth and Joan Lane. Their comments on the plays largely confirmed my views though the last play appeared to be better on the page than in performance.
The winner was An Absence Of by Suzanne Jeans. This was her first play and one hopes she goes on to write many more.
Chair of the Windsor Fringe, Karen Darville, giving the £500 cheque to the winner, Suzanne Jeans (All writers say that the experience of working with a director & seeing their play develop, is the best prize!).