People Watching, Plumb Puddings and Spiders: The New Writing Festival Opening Gala

The New Writing Festival’s Opening Gala consisted of four scenes and one short play. These were: Ellie Siora’s ‘A Very Serious Scene’, ‘Sometimes Silence’ by Sarah Grunnah, ‘Aristeas’ by Linden Hogarth, ‘Cigarrete in the Sky’, also by Sarah Grunnah and ‘Hesper’ by Nicholas Smart. The quality of the writing was impressive across all five pieces – ranging from hilariously witty to ominously unnerving – to ensure an engaging and memorable evening.

Two actors, pre-set in a tense, somber atmosphere, opened the gala with Ellie Siora’s ‘A Very Serious Scene’. Yet Within about thirty seconds of dialogue the very title of Siora’s work revealed itself to be ironic and we became engaged in a scene of backstage drama bickering. Siora’s script spoke very much to an Oxford audience in its mention of third week essay crises, the Keble O’Reilly, and NWF. The main strength of this piece was its way of reeling the audience in: the first joke was about a smirking audience member, to whom the actors weren’t afraid to address directly. Cameron Kirkpatrick was particularly fearless in this respect, giving an engaging performance. At times, the blocking felt a little static and it was a shame that the majority of the scene was played towards just one side of the thrust seating. That said, Director Conky Kampfner ensured that ‘A Very Serious Scene’ provided highly engaging, light-hearted entertainment: a great opening to the gala.

Sarah Grunnah submitted two pieces, each of which were massively different in tone. ‘Sometimes Silence’ was one man’s painful interior struggle in which he is internally tortured with the possibility of performing radical actions: the killing of his wife, his lover, or himself. Grunnah’s monologue was particularly fast paced and director Callum Coghlan capitalized upon this successfully. In places, some of the logic between the speaker’s racing thoughts were lost; however, this may have been down to a distracting use of sound, which I thought hindered rather than enriched the performance on stage. Nonetheless, Josh Rawley gave a very impressive performance: a challenging job given the heightened intensity of Grunnah’s powerful script.

The quality of the writing was impressive across all five pieces – ranging from hilariously witty to ominously unnerving – to ensure an engaging and memorable evening.

Testament to the talent of Grunnah is that her second entry to NWF was so radically different in tone and style. In ‘Cigarette in the Sky’ the pacing was again impressive, ensuring that my attention did not waver once. We meet a Texan woman who cares not for big events around the world but instead enjoys the little things in life, particularly people watching. She tells the audience how she falls in love with a woman who asks her for a cigarette lighter. Grunnah’s monologue oscillated between brilliantly sharp jokes and deeply heartfelt emotion. Incredibly, Grunnah gave Lucia Proctor-Bonbright all the material to create such a well-rounded character within a ten-minute time frame. Proctor-Bonbright’s performance was exceptional: her energy, poise and delivery could not be faltered. Furthermore, credit must go to director Kampfner’s sensitive attention to detail which ensured very subtle, natural staging which suited Grunnah’s monologue perfectly.

Linden Hogarth’s short play ‘Aristeas’ is a great piece of writing centering around two detectives who have remained in the same room for seven years. Running through the play was the image of a spider: a familiar metaphor used to relate our world to the detective world of McCurdy (Philippa Lawford) and Vince (Alex Rugman). I loved the moment when McCurdy and Vince discussed whether this spider could drift instead scuttle, which, whilst it had the audience chuckling, also provided a very sensitive focus on the mundane. The way the script maintained a comedic surface whilst hinting towards a more unsettling undercurrent gave a delicate subtlety to the script that ensured poignancy. Through set and costume, director Georgie Botham ensured a successfully cohesive show: the oversized jackets were much in keeping with the messy, disordered office, both of which underscored McCurdy and Vince’s unnerving prolonged settlement. Rugman gave a brilliant performance in his role as Vince through an innocent, childish comedy and I was particularly impressed with Lawford’s physicalization of her role. She stomped around with a nervous energy, much in contrast to the free, gangling movements of Rugman’s Vince – just one example of how they played off each other brilliantly.

For me, the standout monologue was ‘Hepser’ by Nick Smart. With a stream of consciousness quality, Smart has produced a piece of intelligent, innovative and extremely moving writing. Director Callum Coghlan and actor Rory Grant clearly worked exceedingly well together to create a multi-faceted character who oscillated between moments of spirited energy and tortured emotional stillness. Grant gave truly captivating and memorable performance to ensure an emotionally engaging end to the NWF Gala. If the Opening Gala is anything to go by, I can only recommend the upcoming four shows later this week. The quality of writing, acting and directing is incredibly high – grab your tickets soon.

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