Ben Seager’s Held by the Habit was the product of last year’s First Time Writers Initiative at the New Diorama Theatre. Its performance heralded the opening of the submissions process for writers aspiring to take part in the 2013 season. The initiative was set up by the All The Pigs Company and picks three individuals who have never written before and takes them on a 16-week intensive course of interviews, workshops, and readings, eventually creating a 30-minute play.
This process appears to be an effective one, judging by the high quality of dialogue and characterisation in Held by the Habit. The audience have an exclusive insight into a dying Frank Sinatra’s psychological state. Jeff Lewis swaggers around as the aged Italian-American, and excels in alluding to Sinatra’s affinity with the New York gangster. In his dressing room, a rookie British reporter (Kieran O’Rourke) intercepts Sinatra, whose bumbling nerves about the interview he needs to conduct for Time magazine are a humorous echo of Hugh Grant.
Only later does the audience discover that medical authorities constructed this entire episode, and the rookie reporter was merely a plant, designed to make Sinatra feel that he was still ‘somebody’ in his old age. The director Sam Carrack has made the most of Seager’s excellent script, making the multiplicities of cross-interrogations bounce around the stage like a tennis match. The action is somewhat static but this is unproblematic with only a 45 minute running time. By exploring the psychology of master performer Sinatra, Seager’s play raises questions about the very nature of performance itself. After a lifetime’s addiction to his performance persona, the aged Sinatra has lost sight of reality. With a failing memory, he only feels comfortable being in a perpetual state of ‘about to step on stage’. Ironically, this scenario is, in itself a theatrical construct, as the medical authorities have built an elaborate dressing room and backstage area for him to live out his final weeks. It is revealed that even his famous swilling of Jack Daniels is a show, and for years he’s been on the iced tea.
It is a shame that Held by the Habit is for one night only. It has he potential to be developed into longer and larger- scale exploration of the entire medical processes behind Sinatra’s death. Alternatively, this short piece would be an excellent fringe touring show, particularly suited to Edinburgh. It was fantastic to be able to see this gem of theatre at the New Diorama, but it is a pity if it remains undeveloped. On the other hand, this show bodes well for the quality of the writing expected to come from the 2013 writer’s initiative where all (regardless of age of experience) are encouraged to apply.
Applications for The First Time Writer’s Initiative are from 14 June 2013. For more details on how to apply, please visit the New Diorama Theatre Website.