Part of the February Drama Festival
Customs House, South Shields
I say this every year, but it bears repeating: for a small (400-seater) provincial theatre to devote three weeks to three new plays by local writers is a dangerous thing to do, both financially and artistically. All credit to Ray Spencer and the Customs House for being prepared to take those risks for a fifth year running.
Paul Buie won the comedy playwriting competition which formed last year's FebFest, and has had another short play, Influence, performed at the venue during the year. Both were intelligently written and well received, so expectations were high for Writing Wrong.
New writers are often advised to write about what they know, at least when they start, but to write a play about writing a play might seem on the face of it to be taking this advice a bit too far. However Buie's plays are never quite what they seem and Writing Wrong puts the relationships of four of the characters, playwright Michael and his girlfriend, dramaturg Virginia, and Michael's friend Trevor and his wife Kate, an old flame of Michael, in the spotlight. There is jealousy, love, friendship, ambition (and frustrated ambition), pretension and revenge, which all end up in such a knot that it seems as though nothing can unravel it. Then in steps Sharon, a would-be actress, a kind of deus (should that be dea?) ex machina (and a most unlikely one, too) to set everything straight. For a while it looks as though she might, in fact, be a kind of supernatural figure, but no, there is a rational explanation for her presence. Or is there? With Buie you're never quite sure.
Arising from this examination of relationships is some very funny comedy - and quite a few very bad jokes (mainly courtesy of Trevor), including a delightful send-up of bad farce - untrousered MP and all - which spills over into real life.
The first half is just a tad slow and seemed to stutter slightly at times (too many short scenes perhaps?), but the second fairly rattles along to the much maligned but always popular happy ending. The company, under the firm direction of Customs House regular Jackie Fielding, gradually turn what seem at first to be somewhat stereotypical caricatures into real characters, engaging our sympathy whilst we shake our heads at their foolishnesses. Neil Armstrong (a Customs House favourite as Trevor), Alex Elliott (Michael), Zoë Lambert (Kate), Laura Norton (Sharon) and Phillippa Wilson (Virginia) give assured performances in what is very much an ensemble piece.
In the face of the expectations mentioned above, then, Paul Buie's latest play does not disappoint.
"Writing Wrong" runs until Saturday 4th February
Reviewer: Peter Lathan