British Theatre Challenge 2024

Emily Carmichael, Scott Gibson, Evonne Fields-Gould, Steve Eddison, Lee Brodie
Sky Blue Theatre Company
Jack Studio Theatre

The Injured Party by Scott Gibson: (Rear) Rosalind Adler and David Kerr, (Front) Michael Tuffnell and Darrie Gardner Credit: Kat Forsyth
Each Fallen Robin by Emily Carmichael: Marlon Kameka and Tracy Garcia Credit: Kat Forsyth
Can There Be Justice For TJ by Evonne Fields-Gould: Samantha Russell Credit: Kat Forsyth
You Butterfly by Steve Eddison: Mary Tillett and Tim Heath Credit: Kat Forsyth
The Magic in Christopher by Lee Brodie: Tim Heath Credit: Kat Forsyth
British Theatre Challenge 2024 Credit: Publicity image

International playwriting competition The British Theatre Challenge is back at The Jack Studio with five short plays.

The initiative supports emerging and established writers by giving their unproduced plays a professional airing and the possibility of publication. This year’s season showcases winners from a mix of international entries.

Of these, two have a distinctively American voice. The Magic in Christopher takes place on a Christmas Eve during The Great Depression and bears a gently moralising story of a young lad, the titular Christopher, using the three wishes he has been granted for the benefit of others. It has a sanitised familiarity and a simplicity that would make it a great play for festive primary school performance, its saccharine cuteness guaranteed to have grannies in the audience tearing up.

Set in America, a lot may be deduced from the title Can There Be Justice for TJ? It looks at the killing of a young black man, TJ, by a white police officer from the perspective of the mother who, in her grief, neglects her family and anaesthetises herself with alcohol. She has an epiphany when, halfway down a bottle, TJ speaks to her.

This play comes across as not yet finessed to its best form. I admire the writer’s ambition in addressing such a huge and provoking topic in a tight slot—running time must be less than thirty minutes—but given the time constraints, it needs to be written significantly more economically than this present version, where time spent on nostalgia and flashbacks could be better used. Notwithstanding all that, Samantha Russell delivers moments of pure heartbreak as the mother.

The Injured Party is a sitcom with a side order of comedy of manners that crosses geographical boundaries. Set in a car, two middle-aged couples become stuck in roadworks and, whilst the pair in the front bicker, from the back comes a bombshell. What emerges from the tit-for-tat revelations that follow is a pattern of offences given and taken, for the most part amplified by causal events having been kept hidden. Underneath the froth of light comedy hide nuggets of more worth, not glaring but there for the finding; these truisms of human nature and long-running relationships are the tender pay-off to this neatly short piece.

The point of interest is not so immediately apparent in the evening’s opening piece either. Each Fallen Robin is a two-hander where colleagues Will and Fran, both in their thirties, find themselves together in the workshop after hours. Little by little, they they seem to explore what they may have in common, and the dialogue subtly captures the often uneasy emerging rapport between them, as one dominates the conversation asserting their view and bragging about past relationships, the other less assuming and more personally discreet. The story itself doesn’t go anywhere much and it doesn’t need to, as it is the trading on genders that makes the conversation an end in itself, since it is Marlon Kameka’s gentle Will whose silent acquiescence fuels Fran’s (Tracy Garcia) self-assurance and toys with your interpretation.

You Butterfly is the first of the two longer plays that make up the second act. It stands ahead of the others for the coherence and reach of its writing and the performance of Mary Tillett as Betty, an elderly lady with dementia. In periods of confusion, Betty appears to be remembering experiences of childhood sexual abuse by her father, but her condition laces the telling of it with uncertainty. It is a composite picture of what happened, the episodes interspersed by domestic mundanities, and other scenes that straddle the normal and the surreal until finally all bets are off.

You Butterfly is rightly tactically paired with The Magic in Christopher by way of antidote to the former’s difficult themes and to provide an uplifting closing.

Whether that anecdotal spoonful of sugar impacts the audience appreciation vote for winner of the Anne Bartram Playwright Award remains to be seen—the last performance was yesterday evening and the winner hasn’t yet been announced on the socials.

It is pretty clear which play I put first on my voting slip, but at the risk of sounding like a placatory parent at a school sports day, it is the taking part that matters. When new work is more at risk than ever due to funding cuts and European cultural exchanges have been made near-impossible due to Brexit, programmes such as The British Theatre Challenge become more important.

The British Theatre Challenge Plays are:

  • Each Fallen Robin by Emily Carmichael
  • The Injured Party by Scott Gibson
  • Can There Be Justice For TJ? by Evonne Fields-Gould
  • You Butterfly by Steve Eddison
  • The Magic in Christopher by Lee Brodie

The window for submissions to the 10th British Theatre Challenge will open on 1 November.

This page has been updated to report that Steve Eddison is the recipient of the Audience Appreciation Award at the British Theatre Challenge for his play You Butterfly. Congratuations!

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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