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Review of Untold Stories – A New Writing Festival #4 at SLAM 32

Singles Night (c) Nathalie St Clair
Singles Night (c) Nathalie St Clair

If there was supposed to be any overarching themes to Untold Stories – A New Writing Festival #4, I suggest it’s about personal identity and personal freedom. The format for events like this, for the uninitiated, is straightforward: a series of short plays presented in a single evening. If anything, it’s great value for money.

Singles Night: Over 50s, written and performed by Holly Kavanagh, portrays a regular pub event with regular customers. The plot is uncomplicated, and it’s easy to see why certain people have remained without a partner, though it isn’t for lack of trying. The bar staff do not think kindly of the pub landlord for various reasons, but mainly for superfluous micro-management. The characterisation of participants at the event is humorous, with considerable focus on one man, Jimmy, one of those stereotypical alpha males with delusions of grandeur. The karaoke machine comes out, and Kavanagh provides a masterclass in comedy crooning, just slightly off-key but enough to make it deliberately sound utterly terrible, leaving the audience in cahoots.

Goulburn (c) Nathalie St Clair
Goulburn (c) Nathalie St Clair

Goulburn by Mike Shephard sees Newell (Holly Joyce) being interviewed by Kearney (Cheska Hill-Wood). Kearney is a “compassionate visitor” who has apparently been sent in by prison authorities to visit Newell, who is about to be executed for murder. Whether she really did it or not was not made entirely clear, at least not to me. This was indicative of the strength of the writing as well as the nuanced performances from both actors. A sudden plot twist, darkly comical, was one I couldn’t have predicted if I were given a hundred guesses. Despite the foreboding backdrop, this was an impressively intriguing play.

Knees by Nick Myles doesn’t so much depict a night out proverbially painting the town red but recounts an ugly experience. Jay (David Lenik) is panicked as he bounds on stage, struggling to get his words out. While the initial details seem typical of a Friday or Saturday night out in a city centre, the primary reason why certain people were targeted and subjected to physical attack is disappointing and disheartening in a modern and cosmopolitan society. Lenik puts in a deeply impactful monologue.

Bakersfield (c) Nathalie St Clair
Bakersfield (c) Nathalie St Clair

Bakersfield by Chris Oduh turned out not to be the dilemma it started off being. Tommy Williams, Jr. (Kingsley Amadi), 17 years of age, wants to pursue a career in baseball, but his father, the sort of authority figure that the head of the household was in the Fifties, is determined to see his son join the ranks of the United States Army. Not a problem in the end: one of his heroes went into the Army and then went on to play baseball, so Tommy will simply follow in his footsteps. Some of the Americanisms went over my head, but they made the play authentic, and did not affect my overall understanding of the storyline or the themes brought out. This was a very heartfelt and compelling performance.

Stevie by Rebecca Jones is a bittersweet narrative about Noah (Dave Perry). Over a series of visits to his brother’s grave, he voices his inner thoughts in a frank and unfiltered fashion. Increasingly frustrated, he becomes “tired of being patronised”, because, to be blunt, there are people out there who subconsciously make an incorrect correlation between being physically handicapped and mentally defunct. His mother is supportive but the school he attends is not, even if there is some justification in them giving him a suspension. An intense and emotional play, Perry’s Noah wasn’t the only person in the room close to tears by the end.

I’ll Be Along D’reckly by Mark Lindow looks at death from a different perspective, though here, as with Stevie, the natural order of things is disrupted, and a child has passed away before his parents. Grandpa Tony (Silas Hawkins) eventually unveils a plaque in commemoration of his late grandson, and the monologue comes across as a stream of consciousness as he reminisces about different times, when Cornwall enjoyed much greater levels of employment, and the dockyards more or less provided jobs for life. There’s not a huge amount about the boy himself, which makes it difficult to work out whether he would have enjoyed listening to his grandfather’s memories. But, overall, it was a lovely narrative to listen to, and Hawkins has glorious singing vocals.

Treya’s Last Dance, written and performed by Shyam Bhatt, tells the story of a character considerably younger than the title would suggest. Treya stopped going to dance classes because her heart just wasn’t in it anymore, so the ‘last dance’ took place with much of her life still ahead. Most of the story is within the backdrop of a speed-dating evening, so the topics of conversation switch very suddenly and abruptly as each dating slot comes to an end. Practically an entire community of people is convincingly voiced by Bhatt. One moment, the audience is listening to one of Treya’s relatives who came over to Britain from India, and the next a Caribbean preacher is ranting on the top deck of a London bus – something about homosexuality being an abomination. Treya disagrees vehemently in a vivid description of a rant of her own.

It was difficult to keep up with everything going on, and in all the comedy, there’s are some serious underlying points about people who identify both as Asian and LGBT+ who face seemingly insurmountable struggles against family and community, some of whom would (perhaps quietly) agree with the preacher on the bus. Treya’s brother was taken by his own hand, and she is understandably reticent to say much about it, particularly when the topic arises within the context of speed dating.

Family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances are given frank and sometimes devastating descriptions. There’s a relative who has “like, three brain cells, maximum” and a date who turns out to be a “genuine Asian rude boy with romantic aspirations”. It isn’t easy to juggle traditional family values in a liberal modern society whoever you are or wherever you come from, and this ambitious and witty play was a suitably nuanced climax to a varied and talent-filled evening.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Listings information:
Dates: Saturday 30 September and Sunday 1 October 2017
Time: Doors at 6.30pm, start time 7.30pm
Venue: SLAM 32, Cubitt St, London WC1X 0LR

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