It’s always good to get in on the ground floor of something new and over the last couple of days I’ve been looking into the New Views scheme run by the National Theatre. 14-19 year olds enter a play writing competition with the winner getting a production of their play at the NT. Slightly reminiscent of a theatrical competition I was part of a few years back! Anyway, participating students learn about play writing from some of the finest writers in the industry and write their own short plays. They take part part in in-school workshops with professional writers, as well as following an online course by playwright Jemma Kennedy. Their teachers receive professional development and partner with a professional playwright to mentor the students in a school. All very exciting and engaging and so I donned my critic’s hat to appraise the winning play. Here’s my review:
The winning play in the National Theatre’s New Views play writing competition for 14-19 year olds is If Not Now, When? by Isabel Hughes from Wakefield. It was given three performances in the Dorfman auditorium and I was lucky enough to be present at one of them. I say “lucky” because it is clear that the writer has huge potential and I’ll be glad to say in future years that I saw her professional debut.
The first thing that struck me was just how mature the dialogue and the structure of the piece were. The writer is still only 16 but already she has a canny ear for the rhythms and inflexions that her characters use. And this equally applies to the adults portrayed as well as her teenage protagonists. At the centre of the play are siblings Liam and Chelsey who are dealing with the realities of life at a far younger age then they should be. Liam has succumbed to the temptations of vodka often leaving his slightly younger sister to pick up the pieces. She becomes pregnant and is unceremoniously deserted by the father. An absent father and a dying mother complete the family picture. If it all sounds a bit issue led …well it is but the telling of this particular tale is vibrant, often darkly humorous and strangely life affirming.
Liam is a bit of, what would be called in Liverpool, a “scally”. Clearly intelligent although at the same time having avoided formal education, he thinks he’s a good catch (he nicknames himself the Barnsley Chop) and is fiercely protective of Chelsey. She in turn looks up to him and tries to persuade him that he’d be better off without the drink. As played by Josh Barrow and Emily Stott these were two well realised, engaging and totally believable characters. They were, of course, well served by their writer but even so here are two more young people with a bright future in the world of theatre.
The rest of the cast provided strong support; I particularly enjoyed Jack Bandeira as the feckless Connor. Staging was kept relatively simple with good use of lighting to delineate locations (Paul Knott) and the director (Elayce Ismail) kept the action flowing across the many short scenes. I have no idea how long a rehearsal period the play was given but it all seemed pretty seamless to me; I’m sure the National would have pulled out all the stops to ensure a production of top quality. If there were still some rough edges that would have been smoothed out with previews, etc. it was entirely in keeping with the world of the play that this should be the case.
All that said, it was, in the end, the writer’s triumph. Over 300 scripts were received so to find that not only have you won out over fierce competition but that your first piece is to be given a professional production – and at the National too – must have been like a dream come true. From what I could see it was thoroughly well deserved. Congratulations to all involved and especially Isabel. I, for one, will be following your future work with a keen eye. And more power to the New Views programme – you are doing some very important work.
Talking of which…..
Applications for the NT’s annual playwriting competition New Views 2019/20 are now open! To find out more and to apply, click here.
As a prelude to the main event I also went and saw a rehearsed reading of one of the shortlisted scripts, a piece called Last Lap by Alice Bennett. Again this was very well written though some of the gaming references rather passed me by. I’d actually gone to try and offer support to a piece by a local writer Emilia Hitching – indeed her school, Bancrofts, is a short walk from my house – but a mix up over times meant I missed it. However, nothing daunted and thanks to Eleanor Middleton, Head of Drama, I was able to attend a student performance of the piece the following day at the school. I think I actually came off better as seeing the play performed was a far more rewarding experience than simply hearing it. The play, called To Charlie, was an engaging piece exhibiting a maturity beyond the writer’s years. It concerned a mother on the cusp of going into labour and examined her relationship with her own mother, her ex-partner, her new baby and crucially with herself. Emilia Hitching can be proud of her intelligent, economical and thought provoking script – she is clearly another writer with a very bright future. Emilia not only wrote and directed the school performance but took on the role of the midwife too. Her three fellow students Georgia Moncur, Malini Sachdeva-Masson and Alex O’Brien gave her excellent support and were completely credible even though playing roles way beyond their years and experience. The focus of the four was first rate and they commanded the packed audience of students’ complete attention.
When I see writing and performances of this calibre, particularly from young people just getting started in life, I am heartened to see the arts alive and thriving and in such capable hands. The various threats from the politicians to reduce Drama, Art, Music and so on to “also ran” status is unnecessarily upsetting. We should be building on our strengths and the voices emerging from schemes such as New Views need to be listened to.