Despite comedian and compere Seann Walsh’s opening spiel on the horrors of the London transport system, the overriding feeling at the culmination of the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays is that of being in the best city in the world – theatrically speaking, at least. For one entire night the future of British theatre is showcased on one of the capital’s most historical and talked-about stages, and the talent and enthusiasm on show is nothing short of inspiring.
As AYT has documented, the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays are an admirable test of endurance, creativity and teamwork. From nothing, plays are cast, written, rehearsed and performed by a company of 52 writers, producers, directors and actors in the space of one day. For the company, all of whom are at the start of their careers, the opportunities are obvious, yet for the assembled audience of friends, family, industry professionals and theatre lovers the project also offers something new. Rarely does an audience find themselves in such complete ignorance about what they’re about to see, and with nothing more than a name to go on, the company’s seven distinct plays certainly take us by surprise.
The night begins with a video montage by Uppercut Films, which just about manages to avoid the X-Factor trap of contrived sentimentality, instead building our expectations as glimpses into the production process capture the company’s descent from adrenaline-fuelled enthusiasm through fatigue to raw terror. The curtain rises on a feeling of genuine possibility and risk, which the opening two plays do little to assuage, with their diverse styles and subject matters.
Rosa Connor’s Buy Me Love shows us three idealistic young scruffs (who quite conceivably could have just popped over the river from London’s current occupation), who are presented with a moral dilemma as they seek to spread their love for the good of all humanity. Despite amusing performances, the writing doesn’t take us anywhere, although the slightly ridiculous conceit nonetheless contrasts nicely with the more realistic pieces that follow. With There is No Drama Without Conflict, Shereen Jasmin Phillips gives the impression of writing for her audience as she follows two ex-drama students hosting – in their words – a cross between Blind Date and Come Dine With Me. There may be many knowing laughs from the audience as these unequal actors hurl raging jealousy and resentment at one another, but although the scenario is common, the dialogue doesn’t quite ring true.
From Gregory Skulnick’s slick, farcical Oh, What A Super-Injunction! to Lee Sutton’s slightly rehashed case of mistaken identity in The Bearded Lady, comic traditions are in full force. Even Eleanor Lawrence’s Four Girls & A Gluten-Free Cake owes a debt to Little Britain sketches, as four women lament cuts to community-based projects and devise their own questionable strategies for getting politicians to listen to their demands. While the challenges of writing and performing comedy must not be underestimated, its preponderance is perhaps unsurprising in a format which leaves very little room for character or plot development, while the blatant shoe-horning of bizarre props provided by the actors generally adds an air of absurdity – the latter play’s talent-scout goose being a case in point.
Yet because of the reliance on comedy, those plays which do strike a more sombre note or offer glimpses of poignancy feel all the more remarkable. The longing looks between actors Jonathon Smith and Caitlin Thorburn in Tobias Wright’s Mea Maxima Culpa provide particularly strong moments of stillness in a play which follows a much more ambitious story arc than other pieces dared to.
While it may be tempting to think simplicity is the key to success in such tight time pressures, Alex Oates’s remarkable Zombie Nation proves the opposite to be true. Using the dilapidated The Playboy of the Western World set to create an eerie, tense atmosphere, this thriller turns out to be an achingly funny and devastatingly sad encounter between old school friends, who are still struggling with the baggage of their youth. One minute Ben Stott is tugging at our heartstrings with a tale of unrequited love, the next he is playing a Backstreet Boys song on a ukulele – the complexity of Zombie Nation stands out for showing what brilliance can be achieved in such tough conditions.
With the entire theatrical process distilled into one day, the 24 Hour Plays focuses our attention on the demands it makes. There is clearly no place for competitiveness or ego, while the uncertainty of the undertaking thrusts trust and teamwork to the fore. The night also leaves you in no doubt that theatre is the writer’s medium – despite assured performances from the actors, the plays live or die on the quality of the writing, which can both restrict and enable the directors and cast. Of course, the best plays are those in which all these distinctions blur, so that you forget you are watching a cast of strangers perform a day old play on another production’s set.
If this is what the future of British theatre can achieve in a day, I can’t wait to see what they do with their lifetimes.