Review: Writefest at Progress Theatre

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Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. Photos by Martin Noble
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. All photos by Martin Noble.

Progress Theatre is well-known for unearthing top local acting talent but that skill also extends to the hidden gems of the writing world too.

Writefest, which is now in its 11th year, is the theatre’s annual celebration of new writing, and 2016 is a real rainbow of entertainment, with witty comedies sitting neatly next to powerful drama.

Organising the running order of seven original and different short plays is no easy task, let alone sorting the director and crew for each, and wading through all the entries in the first place, but producers Heather Noble and Christine Moran have curated a spectacular evening with seven memorable pieces. Compared by warm host Stuart McCubbin, who peppers the show with funny little poems while set changes take place, Writefest 2016 is a showcase not to be missed.

The Cutting Man by Matthew Wilkie

A man (Biffi Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man
A man (Biffo Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man

An understated and powerful exploration of grief, The Cutting Man, follows a man (Biffo Bear) in a library who has an unusual hobby of cutting words from books. As he whispers to us from the dim-lit room, with the librarian (Paula Montie) just out of earshot, we discover the reason behind his strange obsession. A delicate little piece, The Cutting Man has a careful, and well-thought out pace, gradually unravelling the man’s story, not to shock but to make us understand and sympathise with him. Word play is used cleverly here too with the last line of various books interweaving throughout the story. A strong opener with a captivating performance by Biffo Bear.

Knock Knock by Marie French

Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.
Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.

Why are the English men in the truck? Where are they going? And why are there two Russian girls next door? Knock Knock follows two pairs of friends, Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) and Katya (Nanette Naude) and Etty (Stephanie Gunner) as they travel in the back of a fish lorry on their way to a new life. Given the current political climate it’s almost impossible not to think of Trump, his immigration policies and the terrifying prospect of his wall, as the group hold their breath, waiting to cross the border into an unnamed country. The cramped, frightened atmosphere is created skillfully with the use of sound and light – unseen guards walk around the outside and torches illuminate each side. But where will they end up? It is the unanswered questions which make this an enthralling story.

Water Torture by Michael Sharp

Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.
Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.

It might seem like the perfect backdrop for a comedy – an elderly lady in a flowery top, incarcerated for fighting with her neighbours over a garden statue – but Water Torture is far from a frivolous comedy about life in Middle England. When her neighbours of 35 years buy a water fountain, Beryl (Paula Montie) and her husband are driven mad by the constant water works. But there’s more to it than just a dislike for the sound of running water. With her husband reliving some painful memories, Beryl sets about fixing the situation. Paula Montie is superb in this one hander, letting Beryl drip her story out gradually until it reaches a tidal crescendo. Sharp’s balance of humour, (and there are plenty of laughs to be had), and something much more sinister, is spot on.

Hamlet’s Essence by Eva Marchetti

The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia's early death in Hamlet's Essence.
The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia’s early death in Hamlet’s Essence.

In today’s time-poor society has anyone really got the spare hours to watch a whole Shakespeare play? That’s the question posed by Eva Marchetti in Hamlet’s Essence, where a new avant garde theatre group aims to stage a reduced version of Hamlet. With an Ophelia (Nanette Naude) who is desperate to leave early, and a Hamlet (Jack Gunner) who only really wants to give his To Be or Not To Be speech, it’s a hilarious take on one of the Bard’s most famous works. Director Laura Mills has really run with the silliness of the piece and it works, from Ophelia rolling her eyes and telling Hamlet to hurry up, to the slapstick moments of actors sliding themselves off stage when they’ve been killed. Performed by a cast who seemed to be having as much fun on stage as the audience are from their seats, it’s an insiders joke for those who regularly see or perform Shakespeare, and a fun comedy for those new to the Bard’s, sometimes lengthy, productions.

How Do I love Thee by Liz Carroll

Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on

The stand-out show of this year’s Writefest, How Do I Love Thee, is a gut-wrenching piece of drama, written by Progress Theatre stalwart Liz Carroll, and performed by an exceptional cast. Exploring the dangerous effects of religious dogma, the play tells the story of Kate (Lauren Gilbert), who has been brought up in an extremely religious household. Now at university she has created a new life, but it is one which conflicts with her upbringing . The internal conflict she feels is manifested on stage in the figure of her younger self Katie (Bethan Perkins), and the frightening figure of her father (Paul Gallantry). Gilbert, Perkins and Gallantry are sensational at portraying Kate’s inner fears and demons, while she is watched by her indoctrinated mother (Jane Gibson), Rosie from university (Stephanie Gunner) and her therapist (Patrick Selvanathan). A story of mental illness, vulnerability, indoctrination and ultimately love, How Do I Love Thee is a play you won’t forget in a hurry, and it might just be Carroll’s best piece of writing to date.

Home (A Loan Too) by Jonathan Skinner

Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)
Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)

Any 20 or 30 something trying to get even a toe on the housing ladder should see Home (A Loan Too). A hilarious and accurately depressing piece of social commentary, the play sees Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) and prospective buyer Ruth (Karoina Michalowicz) taking a tour of an apartment. Barry is all about the sale, causing much laughter as he describes the cramped living area as cosy and leans Ruth outside the window so she can see the river ‘glimpse’ rather than view. In a town where house prices are extortionate, like many others across the South East, this little funny vignette will undoubtedly cause a knowing smile for plenty of audience members.

Mixed Reception by Emma Wyverne

A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception
A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception

Ending the programme on a high, Mixed Reception is a witty whirlwind through the television channels. A cookery class, religious sermon, gardening programme, childcare show and the news are all on stage before us, but with a dodgy reception we keep switching from show to show – to hilarious effect. As the childcare host tells us about snow white and the seven… we switch to the news to hear of the…seven Argentinian cocaine smugglers. With fantastic wordplay, Mixed Reception is a thoroughly enjoyable little skit, and for the most part the cast lived up to the challenge of making sure they hit their cues for a seamless broadcast. A lively end to a sensational night of theatre.

The 11th annual Writefest is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading until Saturday, 19 November. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review Writefest so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

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