Published on April 25th, 2017 | by Lauren Donoghue0
Review: Progress Premieres
Progress Theatre has long demonstrated a commitment to supporting new writing through their annual Writefest production. With Progress Premieres they are building on this established platform to create a second regular event in their production calendar solely devoted to staging new works.
Two new one-act plays take the stage in the first ever Premieres evening, and they are both well chosen and well executed.
The first venture is The Writer Bird by Emily Goode, an examination drawn from Goode’s personal experiences of writing that moves swiftly into an exploration of the nature of stories, why we tell them, and how we can use them to hide from the truth.
We are guided through fairy tales and parables and a sort of rom–com/thriller hybrid by the writer and his mannequin-muse, and are subtly prompted to start asking ourselves questions. What purpose does a story serve? Who is a story for? Is a character a complete invention of its author? Or is it a fully formed thing that the writer simply discovers?
The thing I appreciated about this piece is that these questions aren’t answered. They aren’t even directly asked. Goode doesn’t adopt a viewpoint and hammer it home to the audience with spoon-fed plot points, she lays out a buffet and allows us to make our own plates.
The actors are well-matched and play off each other with ease, really committing to each role they play throughout. I was especially impressed by Owen Goode’s ability to embody his ‘story’ character and have that break down as the writer pushed back through. Bethan Perkins can move deftly between humour and emotion, and watching her transform from impish mannequin to fairy tale queen to the final story’s Aunt Julie was really a joy.
The staging was minimalistic, trusting that the audience will fill in any blanks, and the use of balls of string as the main prop throughout was thoughtful and effective. In the programme’s introduction it is mentioned that the production drew on ideas from physical and absurdist theatre for inspiration. While I could see those influences early on and again towards the end, I felt that it fell out of frame somewhere in the middle and I would have liked to have seen it pushed even further, as where those techniques were used, they really worked.
The Swastika Party was much more traditional in style but equally thought provoking. The opening image of a young woman casually enduring the inconvenience of the Blitz was startling and discomfiting, and from there the narrative is in constant turn between cosy parlour piece and personal histories of wartime life.
Not often do we get to see four women alone on a stage for such an extended period of time, and the team behind The Swastika Party obviously felt the importance of this opportunity. The performances were layered and detailed, and the relationships between characters were unique to each pairing. I really felt that these women had a life outside of what we were allowed to see.
Plot-wise, it circles the wagons a little. After the main event that should set the action moving, the resolution is slow to come around and could be wrapped up much quicker, in the interest of pacing – there are conversations that at their core are repetitions of the last scene, and in a play that is only conversations, this is noticeable.
Having said that, though the lack of drive towards the end point was noticeable, I didn’t mind at all. Having extra time with these women was no hardship.
The cast provided excellent counterpoints to each other, Stephanie Gunner and Emma Wyverne were a calming, steady presence where Samantha Bessant an Megan Turnell held their own in the more energetic parts. Paul Levy’s script dealt out shining moments fairly evenly amongst them, and none of them waste a second of it. I was particularly moved by Gunner’s almost ecstatic revelations regarding her feelings towards the Blitz.
My favourite moments, though, were those when all four characters were together, the subtleties of their individual relationships accentuated by the group dynamic and credit to director Maria Hackemann for taking the time to develop those dynamics to the point where I couldn’t tell them apart from a group of friends who’ve known each other for decades.
Structurally, and narratively, I think The Swastika Party could bear some further development, but as a series of vignettes about this group of women, I could have watched it for hours. The final scene was stirring and I came away with a huge smile on my face.
Staging new writing is always a risk, but in the case of both of these plays the risk pays off. Progress Theatre continues to develop and solidify its reputation as a supporter of original works and I hope that they will do so for a long time to come.
Progress Premieres is running at Progress Theatre until 29 April. Tickets are available online.
Photo courtesy of Richard Brown.