Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Last year the Jack Studio Theatre launched its second writing festival Write Now 2 by inviting submissions from new playwrights with a connection to south east London. There were over 80 scripts, but only three plays could be selected to receive their first fully staged performances.
The first of these is by Greenwich-born Jessica Brown. Initially Brown studied Film and Literature at the University of Warwick, also attending the Writing Squad Programme for promising writers in Sheffield, and getting a piece of prose writing published before finally returning to London four years ago. In 2010 she completed the Royal Court Young Writers Programme under whose auspices she wrote a second play and she was also short-listed for the Old Vic 24 Hour Play Project. 2011 gets off to a good start for her with a standout production of her first play, Chocolate Bounty, which she wrote in 2009.
It is an assured debut grappling with gritty topics. Jenny lives on a grotty Leeds estate; she is a shy friendless teenager who gets bullied at school and tormented at home by an insensitive older brother. She meets new neighbour Michelle, confident and streetwise, and although they could scarcely be more different, a friendship develops from their shared loneliness.
The two girls are equally lost; Jenny's mother has died and her father is not around much, thus leaving the field open for brother Matt to wield disproportionate authority over his impressionable sister. By contrast Michelle's mother is unable to guide her daughter. Her young son has been taken into care, unable to face reality she lives life on pills with a can of lager in her hand, incapable of anything other than surrendering to an abusive partner who would be just as happy to have Michelle leave home.
Brown captures not only the argot of roughly educated, unguided teenagers but something of what makes them tick and how easy it is to damage their fragile belief in themselves. Michelle and Jenny demonstrate much of what is best and worst of this turbulent phase of growing up and the struggle they have to avoid following in the footsteps of the poor role models that surround them.
Living round the corner from a secondary school and having a teenager of my own, I found myself in familiar territory with the gobby, opinionated loud-mouthed Michelle and the diametric Jenny with the only implausible element being that Michelle is the only black girl in the school. I don't know the demographic profile of Leeds, but this seems somehow unlikely.
Performers Hannah Wood and Shyko Amos are equally striking. Wood captures poignantly the vulnerability of Jenny being buffeted about by life, unpractised in friendship and diffident about expressing herself. She seems to physically take up less space than Amos but maintains her presence on stage.
Shyko Amos makes cocksure Michelle attractive, her feistiness entertaining us as well as engaging our sympathy for her tragic predicament at home, feeling her frustration with the things she is not empowered to change.
Bullying, unenterprising brother Matt is played by Dan Wilder: despite Wilder's slim frame he brings something dense and thuggish to this benighted individual. Chantelle Dusette and Joanna Waters play Michelle's mother and the partner all too willing to victimise her. In an hour-long piece there is insufficient opportunity to fully develop five characters, and this is where the necessary economy has been made.
Kate Bannister directs this naturalistic play with a light hand, allowing the material to speak for itself but also giving Chocolate Bounty a well judged physicality to help it deliver its emotional punch.
"Chocolate Bounty" is sold out. The Festival continues with "The Laundry" by Joe Ward Munrow from 1st to 5th March and "Keeping Mum" by Judith Bryan from 8th to 12th March.
The Festival includes "Taking Part", individual writing workshops open to all, suitable for those who want to try out something new, or have an idea they would like to develop.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti