The final round-up of Alchymy 2018, our festival of new plays, by critic-in-residence Fergus Morgan:
Alchymy 2018 has wrapped up, concluding with Tamsin Daisy Rees’ Cheer Up Slug, a three-handed teen comedy set on a catastrophic Duke of Edinburgh in the North East. Or at least, it starts out as a comedy. Bean (Rebecca Tebbett) and Alex (Jill McAusland) couldn’t care less about orienteering, spending more time bickering over boys than putting up tents, while nerdy Will (Daniel Watson) frets about being disqualified, and the harm that’ll do to his UCAS applications. There’s an amenable Geordie frankness to their squabbling.
But then, Cheer Up Slug slides away from comedy camping caper, through teenage melodrama, and into something else entirely. The real source of Will’s tension reveals itself, as does the genuine bitterness broiling between Bean and Alex. It’s riddled with adolescent angst, but bubbling away beneath that is something a bit darker. A bit meaner. The humour evaporates, along with the sentimentality. Will turns out to be a bit of a selfish shit, Alex a bit self-absorbed and vindictive.
It’s still rough and ready as a piece of writing, lacking shape and context. Emily Collins’ direction doesn’t make the shift from humour to hubris emphatic enough, and the three performances deal with the laughs better than the cruelty, but there’s an intriguing idea here – that the mistakes we make as teenagers can be far more damaging than we realise.
Elsewhere on day three, Alchymy boasted conversational debates with Imogen Stubbs and Jonathan Guy Lewis, whose play Soldier On arrives at the North Wall in a few weeks, and with director Laurie Sansom, whose production of Kiss of the Spider Woman recently opened at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and who directs Barney Norris’ Nightfall at the brand new Bridge Theatre later this month.
Sansom, speaking with Ria Parry, talked intelligently and informatively about his career, which has seen him move from Watford, to Scarborough, to Northampton, to Scotland, where he took over from Vicky Featherstone as artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2013, leaving in 2016. His struggles to reform NTS’ structure in the teeth of fierce opposition – Sansom insisted upon the necessity of an executive director – led on to a wider discussion of the often-overlooked roles of theatre boards in general.
Freely conceding the responsibility artistic directors have to promote diversity and equality in the industry, Sansom simultaneously stressed how vital the behaviour and make-up of board members is as well. Unless there is diversity in the boardroom, as well as on stage, there’s no chance of genuine change. A complete rethink of how theatre boards are appointed and organised, Sansom and Parry agreed, was essential.
The behaviour of boards cropped up again when the departure of Emma Rice from the Globe was debated in Tradition and Innovation, a panel discussion chaired by Tom Kuhn that involved Parry, Sansom, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Tom Brennan and Gate Theatre artistic director Ellen McDougall. Shakespeare, and how some sectors of society treat him with a disabling reverence, was just one topic in a wide-ranging conversation centring on the tug-of-war between respecting and reviving classic plays, and abandoning them in favour of the new.
For many theatremakers on the panel, the cultural dominance of canonical texts almost exclusively by dead, white men is a problem that needs solving. Pointing to other theatrical cultures in Europe and even to Scotland, where there is no writer as all-encompassing and irreproachable as Shakespeare, Sansom argued that a different, healthier way of interacting with tradition is possible – an approach that can interrogate the past fruitfully, always with an eye on the present.
But tradition, McDougall pointed out, does not have to mean old plays by white men. Pantomime, the institution that many point to as the epitome of regressive conservation, embraces a liveness and a spontaneity that has been drained from much more contemporary work, with the notable exception of gig-theatre. In chasing the new and doing away with the old, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, she argued.
And so ends a provocative, promising weekend. As a critic, going to festivals like this can be an illuminating but odd experience. The focus is naturally on creatives, on networking, on presenting new work and on beginning and building on relationships across the industry. In that, judging by the buzz that has filled the North Wall over the past three days, Alchymy has been a resounding success.
Has the work presented been exceptional? In some cases, yes – Lewis Doherty’s WOLF is a real gem of a show, well worth looking out for this summer, as is Alex Foster’s Wood and Luke Barnes’ I Am A Man. In other cases, no, but it’s always been driven by ideas and exploration. And that, particularly in an environment like this, is enough. The real value is not in producing polished works of theatre ready for the wider world, it’s in fostering and cultivating relationships that will blossom later down the line.