One of the most prestigious awards in the theatrical world is the Papatango New Writing Prize established in 2009. The awardee is promised a full production of their script, but obvious events have conspired against this happening this year. It was a bumper year for entries (1,410 of them all told) and so it was decided to produce the three eventual winners’ pieces as audio plays. These are now in the middle of a virtual tour around 14 regional theatres giving the writers as wide exposure as possible. I caught up with them via the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough – even though I didn’t actually have to be there to do so.
The first of the trio is Nkenna Akunna’s Some Of Us Exist In The Future. Chiamaka is British but she is currently in New York. As a freshly arrived immigrant she finds life there much more extreme with a number of conflicting voices vying for her attention. Some are her new contacts especially housemate Isata. Another is of someone from her past who leaves voice messages. And then there are the words of the gods of her Nigerian heritage which she assumed she had left behind; but they have more than plenty to say. The opening sections of this play are rather baffling though listening on made things somewhat clearer. However, it’s a mysterious piece which seems to elude delivering its meaning in any concrete way. The sound design of Xana takes some getting used to and some parts of it are very difficult to discern. Headphones would seem to be essential to capture the nuances of Akunna’s script. As a new writer her voice is definitely individual and distinctive and Rachel Nwokoro, Funmi James and the rest of the five strong cast give interesting performances.
The Silence And The Noise by Tom Powell revolves around two teenagers Daize and Ant who both have a connection with the world of drugs. He is getting in deeper and deeper with the dealer Beetle running errands in exchange for cash. She is trying to prop up and rescue her mother who is a serial user. At first the pair are antagonistic towards each other but gradually they come together to form an alliance – tragedy still ensues though. Both, particularly Daize, presents a tough front to the outside world but are actually extremely vulnerable. We are reminded that they are little more than children in the extended section where they imagine themselves as characters in “Fantastic Mr Fox”. Shakira Riddell-Morales and Aldous Ciokajlo-Squire find an excellent rapport and create credible characters. Both handle Powell’s realistic dialogue, which is peppered with put down repartee, with assurance and George Turvey’s direction ensures clarity and drive. This one fulfils the brief of a good audio play and left me feeling I’d certainly like to hear more from this interesting playwright.
The final piece is Ghost Stories From An Old Country by Tajinder Singh Hayer. Two brothers try to come to a level of understanding about ghosts from their own pasts which still haunt them many years later. The younger, Amar, is having regular appointments with a therapist (definitely not a psychiatrist) and these visits form the framework to the main story. The older brother, Daljit, has become withdrawn and reclusive, not helped by the pandemic lockdowns. The therapist posits that the ghost stories that Daljit used to tell his sibling might hold the clue to what has gone wrong with their relationship. Some of these tales are cleverly interwoven into the main storyline; while they are entertaining in their own right they do fracture the main narrative somewhat. However, they are well put over by Raj Ghatak playing Dal and Shane Zaza makes an equally convincing job of the haunted brother. The whole piece is given some great atmosphere in Jessica Lazar’s direction and Farokh Soltani’s sound design.
The three pieces are all quite different in concept and execution and along with the mammoth number of other entries demonstrate that while the pandemic may have been a hammer blow to the industry generally, it may actually have proved a boon for new writing. The Papatango 2020 winner, Old Bridge by Igor Memic is only just now receiving its premiere stage run at the Bush Theatre. It remains to be seen whether this new trio will receive the same accolade. If only one is produced my vote (if I had one) would firmly go to The Silence And The Noise as it’s a really fresh take on a well worn subject.