Review: WriteFest at Progress Theatre

fourstars

Kelly Hugo and John Goodman in Inheritance. Photo by Aidan Moran
Kelly Hugo and John Goodman in Inheritance. Photo by Aidan Moran

In an evening of seven short plays you would expect there to be one which doesn’t quite hit the mark for its audience.

One which is a little lacklustre, or unfunny, or just a bit dull.

But that’s certainly not the case with WriteFest.

Progress Theatre’s annual celebration of new writing offers one fantastic piece of theatre after another, leaping from laughter to shocked silence with just the changing of a set.

With over 60 works submitted, producers Chris Moran and Heather Noble certainly had a challenge on their hands to whittle them down. But they’ve done it, and crafted a wonderful evening of theatre in the process.

Opening piece Abstract Art by Andrew Port is a powerful start to the evening. Set in an art gallery in Australia, the piece follows gallery owner (Owen Goode), whose past catches up with him when he hosts an exhibition by touring artist Susan Lamb (Bethan Perkins). The story unravels slowly, with brilliant use of lighting to bring the art to life, and gradually the shocking truths of the past are revealed.

Abstract Art isn’t the only piece to pack the punches in its revelations with Liz Carrol’s Don’t Say a Word leaving a chill in its wake. Sam is dead, and his family are struggling to come to terms with his death. The spotlight switches between father, mother and daughter, to the sound of bullets, echoing the war zone Sam has been in.

Peter O'Sullivan and Izzy Hayden in Don't Say a Word. Photo by Aidan Moran.
Peter O’Sullivan and Izzy Hayden in Don’t Say a Word. Photo by Aidan Moran.

We think we know the story, the tragic soldier, the grieving family, but it’s when our expectations are shot to pieces that we’re left reeling at what we hear. The real power of the piece is in its characterisation, and Izzy Hayden, Peter O’Sullivan and Chris Moran all offer strong performances, really showcasing the depth of their characters and the dark secrets they hide.

But it’s not all heavy going. The WriteFest team have struck the perfect balance with Sarah Swatridge’s A Fishy Tale and Emma Wyverne’s Mr Right both offering a warmth of humour.

In A Fishy Tale, grandparents Janet (Sarah Pearce) and John (Peter O’Sullivan) are tasked with looking after their grand-daughter’s pet goldfish, and when it dies it’s not as easy to replace as they think. With a feeling of the classic British comedy about it, some fantastic one liners and a hilarious shop keeper in Silvia Gil, the piece is witty, silly and very entertaining.

Hollie Kennedy and Kelly Hugo in Mr Right
Hollie Kennedy and Kelly Hugo in Mr Right

Mr Right sees young, sweet, bohemian Holly (Kelly Hugo) and smarmy professional Adam (Alex Hobbs) preparing for their blind date. We see each of them getting ready and although it’s easy to guess how things will turn out, the story builds to a comforting and charming denouement.

Kelly Hugo is one of the stars of the night, charming and charismatic as Holly, and also wonderful in Emily Goode’s Inheritance. The stand out piece of WriteFest 2015, Inheritance is the story of Claire and her grandfather, whom she looks after. As the two play a wonderful war of words – testing each other with quotes from television shows, films and books – we get a glimpse of their relationship, soft and loving, though disguised with quick wit. A wonderfully written piece of theatre.

Chris Hoult and Emma Wyverne in Grow Up. Photo by Aidan Moran.
Chris Hoult and Emma Wyverne in Grow Up. Photo by Aidan Moran.

And finally we have Cold Shouler by Benjamin May and Grow Up by John R Goodman.

Cold Shoulder offers plenty of food for thought with cancer patient Sam (Ryszard Modelski) and his wife Chris (Emma Wyverne) visiting a clinic offering alternative cancer therapy. The alternative is to have your body frozen, with the potential for unfreezing when a cure is found. Trish Grimes plays the chillingly pleasant sales rep at the clinic, and the piece poses many questions about society, greed, hope and humanity.

In Grow Up a girl (Emma Wyverne) meets a boy (Christopher Hoult) and as they begin to talk they age before us, moving from toddlers to pensioners as they maintain the same conversation. Goodman cleverly charts a whole lifetime in 20 minutes and Wyverne and Hoult are spot on in their ageing, changing the way they speak and move to step into new eras of their lives.

While the plays themselves made for a sensational evening of theatre, WriteFest also had an extra card up its sleeve this year, the brilliant Gog.

Gog, who was crowned the Alternative Queen of Reading earlier this year, was compère for the evening, and wove each show together with her charming humour, and a very funny song about internet stalking. It’s impossible not to love Gog, and she made for a very shiny stepping stone between each piece.

WriteFest is in its 10th year, and with a programme like this, it only seems to be getting better every year.

WriteFest is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading, until Saturday, 17 October. Tickets are £12, £10 concessions. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

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