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The Very Best Playground: A New Writing Showcase
Etcetera Theatre
10th January 2015


Publicity image for The Very Best Playground

Photography provided by Ghost Dog Productions

It's that time of year where everyone is in a reflective mood, looking back at 2014 and its highs and lows. Ghost Dog Productions have done just that, and selected some of their favourite short plays from their regular new writing night Playground, with two showcases of their top picks running over two consecutive weekends. This first selection features a Shakespeare rewrite, an awkward superhero, a rom-com and a piece of slapstick.

If you've ever lost patience with the star cross'd lovers of the Bard's well-known tragedy, you'll appreciate Rex McGregor's less than sympathetic treatment of Juliet (Alice Bennett) in Grow Up Juliet. Following her sweetheart's death, she's ready to kill herself, but is all really what it seems? There was plenty of trickery in the Bard's original ending, but here McGregor throws in more twists than M. Night Shyamalan's entire back catalogue and really ramps up the deception.

A love triangle between fair Juliet, Romeo (Jack Blackburn) and Rosaline (Sarah Anson) leads to an interesting reinterpretation, and whilst bringing Rosaline back into the mix is fair enough, the script degrades into a far-fetched mess of character switcharoos and personality changes. Anson dons a number of deliberately bad props, from an obviously fake beard to a moustache that just won't stay on, with director Matthew Radway getting the tone of the writing just so. Bennett stands out as a petulant and confused Juliet, struggling to process each new big reveal - something the audience can sympathise with.

Affairs of the heart continue in Peter Easterbrook's The Greengage Familiar, which he both writes and directs. Much of the humour derives from the ridiculousness of The Dark Knight being nervous about a date. After all, Bats is a striking figure in Gotham who rarely loses his head, and alter-ego Bruce Wayne presents the facade of a charming serial womaniser. As a caped-up Dan Richards potters around the room, setting and resetting a table for two, his anxiety is at odds with the costume. We're not entirely sure this is the real deal, and our suspicions are confirmed when a female Robin (Victoria Armstrong) turns up in a brightly-coloured spandex outfit.

With the wardrobe budget on the fringe quite often less than a shoestring, you're not immediately sure whether the amateur costumes indicate cosplay or a lack of funds. I think I'd have liked the ambiguity to continue a little longer, with the date coming as Catwoman or Wonder Woman - just something more fitting with the DC universe and less needless bait for Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. The whole concept is a light, disposable one, and having both a writer and director's cap allows Easterbrook to get his idea across well, but it does have an abrupt ending.

With dating websites proving there are plenty of fish out of there, more and more daters are devising their own daft rules and awkwardly-shaped hoops for potential partners to jump through. It's a numbers game, there's an frankly overwhelming choice, so there has to be a way of screening out some. Neurotic singleton Marla (Grace Edwards) has her own criteria. She insists on three loud and passionate fights - yes, fights with an F for 'fail' - much to the bafflement and frustration of would-be new lover Joel (Ashton Charge).

Writer Barbara Lindsay and director Milla Jackson's Fighting Mr. Right is very much a light-hearted romantic comedy with plenty of social awkwardness driving the laughs - think less Carrie's mate Samantha and more Bridget Jones. Some of the scene-setting in the script goes on too long, but it's a quirky idea, with actors Edwards and Charge making for a believable on-stage couple.

The first three short plays all feel quite insubstantial - having caught a few of the Playground nights myself, I think there were stronger shows to bring back - but closing the night, Radway's April Fool's is a more worthwhile contribution. Jim (James Taylor Thomas) comes home to find his partner, Martin (Sebastian Blunt) has taken annual pranking a touch too far. To make things worse, Martin has invited Jim's sister, Barbara (Esther DiMaggio) and her husband, Jack (Dominic Attenborough) to come round. It's a far-fetched situational comedy, with some wonderfully timed deadpan delivery from the men, in particular Blunt.

The more ridiculous the lines, the more the laughs come. And Martin's repetition of "art" as an excuse for the inexcusable is a wonderful passing shot at those who are lazy in their craft. April Fool's is short like the others, but Radway has put a great deal of care into rounding out each of his characters. Barbara might just be a supporting role but her constant mothering and frugalness go far to establish her personality. Jim is clearly somewhat of a drama queen, but Martin gives him something to really get worked up about, with Jim's constant distress and discomfort and Martin's oblivious response leading to belly laughs.

"The Very Best" may be somewhat misleading, but with four very different short plays crammed into 45 minutes, this is a taster of what Ghost Dog Productions have to offer. Their usual nights are twice as long, with more stories to get your teeth into, so if you enjoy this, it's worth keeping an eye on when their next full-length pick and mix is running in Lambeth.

The Very Best Playground: A New Writing Showcase opened on 10th January and runs until 11th January, then another four of the company's favourite plays will run from 17th to 18th January 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of BlackBoxFestival. Ghost Dog Productions also run a regular new writing night, Playground, at the Horse and Stables.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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