views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Summer Showers
The Hope Theatre
31st August 2015

★★★☆☆

Katy Federman and Tom Vanson in Skyline

Photography provided by the Hope Theatre

When it comes to new writing, the obvious company that springs to mind is The Pensive Federation. They always write, direct and rehearse short plays in only a number of days. First Draft Theatre however have recently relaunched and have a very similar focus - the difference being their scripts are written in advance and carefully selected from a pool of many, and you get the distinct impression that the more successful short plays will be revisited and perhaps fleshed out further. Whilst we only see a first draft, there may be another one to follow. Audience feedback is genuinely welcomed, and it's always refreshing when a bunch of theatre makers invite that level of engagement.

Space in London - or the sheer lack of it - never falls off the list of topical subjects. The first play to kick off Summer Showers is David Bottomley's Skyline, in which developer Jasper (Tom Vanson) is trying to persuade politician Francesca (Katy Federman) to help him circumvent some planning laws. He sees a beautiful, sleek, concrete skyline and big bucks whereas she sees career suicide and a growing feeling of regret for ever letting Jasper ever get in the way of her and her city.

Jasper very strongly comes across as a sleazy low-life who can and does turn on the charm with ease, and Francesca does need to take some responsibility for literally getting into the bed with him, however we can see a genuine protectiveness on her part for the city. Soho is no glittering Canary Wharf, of course it's not, but it has soul, and no true Londoner would ever side with Jasper's regeneration plans. It's a piece which evokes a passionate response from the audience because it's about an issue which matters to us. Let's face it, you don't travel to a theatre pub in Islington if you're an out-of-towner who doesn't give a damn about holding onto every scrap of culture this magnificent city has to offer. Well played, First Draft. Well played.

Being ordinary is not enough, or at least that's the message in Kudzi Hudson's Push Up Daisies. When Sam (Sarah Sparrow) unexpectedly passes away after a night partying hard, she finds herself in front of an unsympathetic caretaker (Timothy Harker) who's ready to dispatch her to the fiery pits below. Sam hasn't ever done anything wrong, yet as the caretaker points out, she hasn't done ever done anything particularly right either. Finding yourself in the afterlife's waiting room is a bit of a trope - Soften the Grey from 2013's Camden Fringe which transferred to the Hope Theatre earlier this year is one of the more successful off-West End pieces I can immediately think of. From the the big screen, well, there's Beetlejuice. Whilst Hudson's story doesn't do anything original, she at least writes it well, and injects a bit of humour with the caretaker's relationships with other divine beings.

Timothy Harker and Sarah Sparrow in Montgomery

Photography provided by the Hope Theatre

Roger Goldsmith's Montgomery is a light-hearted, disposable piece of fluff and gloriously entertaining. Sexually-frustrated receptionist Montgomery (Harker) tends the needs of his clients every day, well aware that one of them, Lily (Sparrow) has clients of her own, and services them in rather different ways. When Montgomery talks about Lily or to Lily, his face lights up, and he fawns over her, his behaviour sycophantic and pathetic. The sudden shift in his expression and tone of voice every time he then talks to a colleague or mentions his wife underlines his discontent and desire for change. Lily becomes a symbol of what he doesn't have and what he desperately craves. She knows this of course - it's obvious from their fleeting interactions - and we wonder whether this is a sentiment shared by her customers. Montgomery manages to spark some intriguing questions as well as being a delightful self-contained little comedy.

The last play of the night, Peter Hobday's Clean, is the hardest to follow. We meet a woman (Joan Potter) who is evidently mentally ill, and who babbles incomprehensibly at us. However I'm not sure what we're meant to take away from that closing monologue other than a feeling of sadness for the woman and her inability to connect with the rest of the world. Hobday's dialogue is deliberately somewhat of a mess, however that makes it incredibly challenging for an audience to unravel his intentions in only 20 minutes. It's certainly the weakest contribution to the showcase.

Although the whole point of Summer Showers is to put the spotlight on new writing, for me, the secret star was Harker. I hadn't seen him before, but as the caretaker in Push Up Daisies and the receptionist in Montgomery, he demonstrates himself to be a wonderfully comedic actor with superb timing. Both his characters have a wicked streak to them, which Harker plays up with a glint in his eyes which says it all, and some very knowing nods.

As for the direction, it's delicate and subtle, with Matthew Parker gently guiding the action from one play to the next and allowing the playwrights' new work to be the focus. There's nothing particularly showy about the production's execution; we're here to listen to the dialogue and determine whether it does anything for us, aided by Parker and the actors. Bottomley and Goldsmith are the two more successful writers, with Hobday baffling us and Hudson's work very much okay, but nothing to shout about. A simple set is recycled thoughtfully, with Parker having considered how best to transition from each piece and the running order making practical as well as tonal sense.

Just as summer showers are unpredictable, the parts of this evening of short plays which work best are a complete surprise. Summer Showers is a fantastic concept from First Draft, and one which hopefully will allow enthusiastic audiences to shape writing at an early enough stage to result in theatre being created which has a ready-made audience awaiting its final draft. I'll be honest - I'm never not excited about new writing. However that doesn't take away from the immense feeling of glee that First Draft are determined to help find more new writing a platform and help rejuvenate fringe theatre.

Summer Showers ran from 23rd to 24th August and from 30th to 31st August 2015 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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