Tristan Bates annual festival of new theatre seeks to draw together talented young directors, writers and performers with the intention of ignited entirely new works and projects during an intensive three-day planning and rehearsal process. Returning for its fourth year, it offers an incredibly exhilarating evening, and utterly redefined my expectations about time restricted devised theatre. Ignition offers tantalising glimpses of scenes and shows which may be developed, which may go on to win Fringe Firsts and tour nationally, or which may conversely be abandoned, having exhausted their creative potential. Each of the three pieces I saw last night was deserving of further experimentation, containing moments of real brilliance and clearly demonstrating considerable potential.
The first piece, Playsong, directed by Ben Ockrent, used the world of music therapy to create an intriguing snatch of naturalistic musical theatre. The excerpt centred around Helen, a music therapist, and a number of the young clients who she helped communicate with the aid of piano playing and song. The music was surprisingly fulfilling, the characters were well defined and their problems handled sensitively. Ockrent has uncovered a wonderful setting for a musical which evades the naturally artificial nature of the conventional musical number, and his contribution could be expanded into a truly remarkable and innovative piece of theatre. The brief suggestion in the closing moments that the character of Helen herself may be a central focus was, however, faintly disappointing. It’s a concept with such potential for an entirely new form of musical, and to stray back towards the theme of the disconnected therapist would somehow undermine its originality. Nevertheless, Okrent clearly has something very special to play with, and when Matthew Lloyd, the Artistic Director of the Tristan Bates, described it as ‘theatrical gold dust’, it was hard to disagree.
Next up was Caroline Horton’s Mess, and having missed her award winning You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy at the Fringe this year, I was delighted to see her in action. Her contribution was the least conventional of the evening, and in many ways the least complete. Instead it offered a variety of approaches to the topic of anorexia nervosa, from clowning and mime to musical and comedy, in a quest to develop a language which could support it. Horton’s own performance was masterfully disconcerting, and from the opening address, which comically sought to cushion the ensuing action from any accusations of political incorrectness, to the painful birthday party finale, she held the audience in perfect suspense. As its title suggests, the piece had all of the intrigue and fascination of a work in progress, which somehow draws you into its world partly as a result of its own rough and unpolished nature.
The final play, Marcelo Dos Santos’s Wrecked, is essentially the first draft of a well constructed and insightful new play. Santos entered the process with a few scenes already written, and he has worked with his performers to tease them out into the bones of a narrative. Taking a collection of moments from a disastrous stag party as its scene, it interrogates multiple concepts of masculinity and machismo. Its three characters represent basic types of masculine identity; the boorish banker, the cool, handsome and hip young professional and the introverted passive aggressive ‘intellectual’, and investigates their relationship. This is not to suggest that the characters are essentially one-dimensional, as Santos has brought real life and honesty to their portrayal, and walks a careful line between condemning and endorsing their often abhorrent behaviour. In the post-show discussion, Santos talked about ‘compassion’, and it is this empathetic characteristic of his writing which elevates it above accusations of snobbery or intellectual elitism. The play emphasises the absurdity of drunken male behaviour by highlighting the disjunction between its tropes and conventions, and the normal expectations of social activity. There are aspects which clearly require further development: the existence of their other friends in the stag party is never convincingly established, and the time-frame of the evening feels stretched and artificial, but with further work this could develop into a very funny and touching piece of theatre.
Altogether then, the Ignition festival should not be missed under any circumstances. The programme rotates each evening, but if the other pieces are of a quality comparable to those I enjoyed last night, no fan of new and emergent theatre will be disappointed.
Ignition is running at the Tristan Bates Theatre until Saturday 30th October. For more information and see who is performing each night, check out their website here.