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Playing Up! 12

Debra Fisher / Rowena Gray / Lewis Cuthbert / Lee Stewart / Mary Pickin / Elle Douglas
Playing Up
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Playing Up! 12

There’s an inevitability about the rise in popularity of the 10- to 15-minute play. The Internet generation, nurtured on a short attention span often can’t be bothered with the demands of a three-hour drama; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, e-mails, texts and God knows what else are lining up and demanding attention.

And one advantage with an evening of short plays is that if you don’t like what you’re watching on stage, another one follows on rapidly behind. But if for audiences in some ways the short play risks being the theatrical equivalent of fast food, for writers it is a different animal altogether. Setting up and resolving a dramatic situation in 10–15 minutes and in a way that makes it more than a sketch is a special talent.

I should know. I’m at present working with a group of new writers trying to create such brief masterpieces and creative angst is a constant travelling companion!

Back to Playing Up. This was formed in 2013 by the graduates of the Live Theatre Writers Centre and they have now presented a dozen evenings of new short works. This is an admirable record, bringing new names into the public realm and not in the upstairs room of a small pub but showcased here at Northern Stage.

If we never hear of some of these names again, well, that’s life, folks and it was ever thus.

Thirteen actors and six separate directors are involved in this mixed-bag sextet. Some plays come over as interesting ideas still not properly explored, a couple I suspect may end up as longer works. There are, happily, no real turkeys.

Debra Fisher’s A Bout a Round (director James Barton) smacks of a TV sketch as a barmaid and customer engage in competitive banter, commented on in sports reporter-style by two nearby punters. Rowena Gray’s Excuse Me (director Sarah Seymour) sees a nice young middle-class female attempting to become a nasty mugger to escape her stereotype. Nice idea if a little soft-centered. In Singular Vision by Lewis Cuthbert (director Craig Fairbairn), we see three time-trapped men running the world’s last video shop. A bizarre element to this, but it could exploit the satirical potential more.

Lee Stewart’s Where The Butterflies Dance (director Amy Herdman-Burns) is a strongly written domestic conflict, a three-hander combustible mix of man, wife and wife’s sister. A writer to watch.

Mary Pickin’s Coffee Morning (director Brian Green) is delightfully dotty, a piece of gossip-mongering as a couple of middle-aged women, in the kindest way imaginable of course, destroy all and sundry.

Finally, we have Elle Douglas’s Anxious Annie (director Catriona Burnett), a serious affair about one woman’s anxiety journey through the perils of life and regular therapy sessions. It has the good sense to keep a sense of humour amongst the darkness, only occasionally slowed by bouts of navel-gazing.

Let’s mention the actors tackling twenty roles. Step forward Gillian Asherley, Eleanor Beck, Steve Blackshaw, Anthony Broderick, Peter Dawson, Karen Elliott, Susan French, Rizwan Khan, Stuart Laidler, Pete McAndrew, Joe Metcalfe, Porle Miller, Sarah Oakland, Steve Palace, Ruby Shrimpton, Ben Storey, Amy Telford.

Finally, a word for our compère, Colin Cuthbert, whose habit of telling the world’s worst jokes between plays began as an irritation but by the end had somehow won over the entire audience.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer