Alchymy 2018: Day One Review

Alchymy’s Critic-in-Residence Fergus Morgan reflects on the first day of our festival of new plays:

This first missive from Alchymy 2018 comes to you from the Spartan confines of a St Hugh’s College dorm room. The bell outside has just clanged midnight, there’s a gaggle of pissed students in the corridor, and, next to the tiny travel kettle in the corner, a sachet of hot chocolate with my name on it. Something comforting, after a day of intense, earnest discussions that frequently emphasised uncomfortable truths about contemporary British theatre.

Issues of inequality and inaccessibility were high on the agenda, particularly during This Is Our Problem, a round-table debate moderated by The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Tom Brennan and featuring a wide range of voices, including independent producer Tobi Kyeremateng, director Madeleine Kludje, and actor and facilitator David Mumeni. The importance of actually walking the walk when it comes to championing diversity, the issue of bridging the gap between entry-level industry schemes and professional stability, and the pigeonholing of BAME creatives were all topics dissected over a wide-ranging hour.

Of course, there is no immediate panacea to curing the systemic lack of fairness in theatre – partly because it’s a problem that spreads far, far wider – but promoting awareness is a key component in starting to find solutions. Mumeni, who is director and founder of Open Door, a new charity giving leg-ups to thirty young Londoners interested in pursuing theatre, spoke passionately and persuasively about the need to reach out to overlooked communities and show them that theatre is not the sole preserve of white, Oxbridge-educated men.

Elsewhere, in the discussion Rewriting the Rules: Building the Future, panellists sought to analyse and respond to David Hare’s recipe for an ideal playhouse. Moderator Tim Bano asked what a perfect theatre would look like. “Something between the Young Vic and the BAC” was a common response – something with a democratic and inclusive ethos, a strong sense of social responsibility, a variety of flexible spaces, and a cracking café. Decent muffins, apparently, are essential for any paragon playhouse.

If there was a paucity of practical advice in both these discussions, there was plenty on offer in the day’s first event, From Concept to Creation: Producing New Plays. The panel, which consisted of four producers, a director and a playwright from a variety of backgrounds, didn’t concur on all points (there was some disagreement over writer Luke Barnes’ assertion that every project needs clear parameters from the outset) but heads mostly nodded enthusiastically when Aidan Grounds, senior producer at Nuffield Southampton Theatres, extolled the importance of ensuring everyone involved is singing from the same hymn sheet from the get-go. Similarly when director Jessica Edwards spoke of the networking opportunities at a regional level.

Interleaved between these discussions were a series of performances. The day was bookended by a rehearsed reading of Issy Snape’s Charlie Charlie, a fast-flowing drama about an isolated game designer losing his grip on reality, and by Marika McKennell’s ITCH, which closed the festival’s opening evening. McKennell’s one-woman show, a poetic tapestry of interlinked stories tying ideas of sexual shame to wider social frustrations, has a likeable, laid-back rhythm to it. Emily Collins’ direction makes effective use of music and projections, and ITCH emerges as a gentle, genial skip through STD clinics and old people’s homes, where the inmates aren’t as libido-less as you might think.

Arguably the festivals centrepiece show is a triple-bill of monologues from acclaimed writers Sonya Hale, Ashley Zhangazha, and Luke Barnes. Zhangazha’s short and sweet Love Liquidators details how dating apps have ruined the life of Bayo Gbadamosi’s cheeky, chirpsing young man – endless swiping has left him tongue-tied and timid when talking to girls in real life. Hale’s Like Butterflies, performed here with bruising brashness by Rebecca Oldfield, follows a homeless drug addict through an ill-fated romance and a violent sexual encounter. It’s a difficult story, but one that feels particularly important when movements like MeToo and TimesUp seem to focus firmly on rich, white, Hollywood stars. It helps, of course, that Hale’s ripping writing oozes authenticity.

The pick of the trio, though, is Barnes’ I Am A Man, thanks partly to an intelligently crafted script and partly to a gritty, gut-punch performance from Liam Jeavons. Jeavons takes to the stage from the audience, dragging a chair with him. He’s a participant at some sort of anger management course, and proceeds to painfully recount his mother’s battle with cancer, his inability to open up about it, and the senseless rage that repression ultimately caused. It’s a really moving piece with a deft ending. Jeavons is superb. You can actually see toxic masculinity crumpling his body as he struggles to articulate his emotions.

The opening evening’s highlight was a showcase of work from the North Wall’s Catalyst programme – an intensive, two-week residential course involving six young writers, three young directors and a small cast of professional actors. Some of the six extracts presented suffered when plonked on the main stage, out of context with minimal design, but the ones that shone, really shone.

Siofra Dromgoole’s Walk Swiftly and With Purpose tells a tumbling, touching story of four female friends on the brink of adulthood – imagine an English, all-girl Superbad. Nina Berry’s Wings – from the short clip – seems to be a slickly written, formally daring essay on life after death, with strong echoes of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. And Adam Foster’s Wood is a brilliantly meta-theatrical comedy set during a rehearsal for a play about porn-stars. It intricately and inventively investigates questions of power and prejudice in both the bedroom and the boardroom. A gem, directed with real fizz, that’ll hopefully be seen in full in due course.

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