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Review of Emerge at Tristan Bates Theatre

EmergeFour brand new works, in various stages of development (one was considered by its writer to be complete as it is, with scope to write a possible series of short plays on a similar theme rather than extending the presented work any further in its own right), are exposed, after the interval, to what another writer considered a public appraisal of their homework. As could be reasonably expected, there were differences of opinion as what appealed to various panellists during the post-show discussion, and whenever a straw poll was held, the audience at large were evenly split on the subject in question.

Afterlife by Dan Pick was intriguing in its refreshing portrayal of the awkwardness of two people meeting for the first time. Becky (Georgia Kerr) has a dry sense of humour, and isn’t much impressed by Tim (Tim Bowie), an estate agent who tries to make small talk but makes only limited progress. To be fair, Becky too throws in a later punchline that is bizarre at best and slightly cruel at worst. A deep and broad discussion about death is not always easy to follow and could do with a little tightening.

It took the post-show discussion to set the play properly in context. On the basis of the play as presented, I struggled to understand the play’s setting. Why was it, for instance, that they would meet in exactly a month’s time? As it transpires, they are but two members of a support group that meets monthly. What came across as two people naively opening up too soon is therefore set against the backdrop of having been diagnosed with (unspecified) terminal illnesses: they have nothing to lose from telling it all like it is.

Turkey Blaster by Jack Albert Cook immediately draws the audience into a clearly upset Ru (Thomas Flynn). Dinner is set for two but only one has sat down to eat, and the passive-aggressiveness is palpable. The kitchen sink on stage clearly sets the play ‘at home’, and Ian (Nathan Gordon) eventually comes in, and Ru understandably wants to know why on earth the invention of the mobile telephone seems to have eluded Ian: with no texts, calls or messages, Ru had no idea if Ian was even okay.

This is only scratching the surface of Ru’s problems. Ian is unhappy, and rather brutally, is unable to accept the couple’s baby, because ‘it’ (is it right to call a baby ‘it’?) is biologically Ru’s and not Ian’s; a surrogate mother, Polly, was used. In the fight or flight dilemma Ian faces, he presses the button marked ‘flight’, though as Ru points out, like isn’t an episode of the BBC Television drama EastEnders. “You can’t just roll off in a black cab.” But having made his choice, Ian returns after less than a month, which left some in the audience thinking it a good thing for there to be some possible reconciliation. It struck me as odd that someone would walk back into a situation that made them depressed and uncomfortable. But, as the play ends abruptly with Ian’s re-entry, it is unclear whether this is a proper rekindling of a relationship that must at some point have been blissful before, or merely an apology and an undertaking to remain friends.

Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart by Richard Molloy left at least one panellist, playwright Isley Lynn, with little to say in an initial response other than she loved it (further remarks were, fortunately, forthcoming later on in the discussion). Athena (Charlotte Salkind) is sat on the floor in an obscure part of a secondary school, listening to music through earphones. Iman (Aaron Douglas) attempts to start a conversation but is rebuffed. The dialogue between pupils comes across as wholly credible.

A strong comedy element repeatedly breaks through, particularly in the dark and acid-tongued putdowns that Paula (Emer O’Conner), head of the school’s English department, has for John (Jamie Seymour), who may or may not be a competent teacher but is, in her mind, a terrible ex-lover. Most of the insults are quite unrepeatable, but it had me in cahoots. Some in the audience thought the play could be adapted to a television sitcom. But television has been there and done that, and I would refer fellow audience members to the excellent comedy-drama 2001-2004 Channel 4 series Teachers.

Vacation by Jessica Fostekew was the play I thought least likely to be autobiographical. It was thus surprising to me that the writer described a holiday she was on with her other half which bore a close similarity to events as played out on stage. Mel (Rebecca Shorrocks), with justification, believes that there’s a third person in her relationship with Nick (Alistair Green) – Nick’s mother, who apparently even pestered her almost immediately after she miscarried, applying pressure on her to conceive again, and quickly. It was quite impossible not to feel sorry for Mel, and indeed for Nick, who, although well-intentioned, is torn between doing the right thing by the woman he loves and by the hand who once fed him.

The play’s ending came suddenly, and was a most unexpected ending, at least for me, and even after some reflection, I’m still not sure I agree with it. Causing audible gasps from the audience, it produced a shock factor that, as artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre, Clive Judd, later pointed out, wasn’t strictly necessary. The dialogue, absorbing as it was, gradually resulted in a performance with significant emotional impact, and the play could feasibly extend to a full two-and-a-half hours, set over the course of the evening’s events.

It was evident that some considerable thought had been given to this scratch night. None of the plays felt rushed – there were moments of quiet, pauses in the action; none of the performances were an attack on the senses, but neither were they too sedate. Such a lively and flowing discussion as this can only arise from plays that provide a panel and audience something to talk about. The actors did extremely well, too, with not a single line of dialogue out of place (or, if there were errors, they covered them up perfectly). Overall, this was a fascinating and memorable evening.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

After a sell-out debut in 2016, Emerge returns to the Tristan Bates Theatre. A night of immediate response to work in progress, Emerge 2 gives four writers, directors and a company of actors the opportunity to collaborate and showcase their work. Four pieces of brand new writing are performed, and after a short interval there is a feedback session with an industry panel.

Panel for Emerge 2 is Matthew Keeler, Creative Producer (Tristan Bates); Isley Lynn, Playwright (Skin A Cat); Milly Thomas, Actor-writer (Clique, BBC 3) and Clive Judd, Artistic Director (Old Red Lion).

PRESS NIGHT – MONDAY 10 JULY 7PM
Running Time 2 Hours 30 mins (with interval)
Tristan Bates Theatre, 1A Tower St, Covent Garden, WC2H 9NP
Online Booking https://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/whats-on/emerge

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