Now in its 20th year, Connections is the National Theatre’s festival of new plays for young people. The productions selected to be performed here are the culmination of a year’s activity in schools and youth theatres across the UK. Fittingly, this year’s festival opens with two plays from youth theatre groups based nearly 500 miles apart.
The concerns of the first play extend much beyond that. A Shop Selling Speech by the British-Egyptian poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz sheds light on the delusion of free speech in Egypt and the Arab world. The piece, performed by Brewery Youth Theatre from Cumbria and directed by Tricia Gordon, explores questions of freedom, power, gender, greed and revolution in a pressure-cooker single-scene drama.
Mahfouz’s play opens with an armed robbery in a newly opened shop in Cairo. But the shop isn’t selling fruit, vegetables or homemade knitwear, it’s selling speech. Once the hysterics of the opening gunpoint exchanges subside, the shopkeepers and perpetrators are able to reflect on their understanding of the Arab world. In Gordon’s production, each are given a moment of ‘free speech’, with the apparent naturalism of the shop falling away as each of their faces is lit in turn by a sharp spotlight.
Although many of the arguments are oversimplified, even for a young audience, A Shop Selling Speech boasts assured performances from Abbi Lawson as Fatima and Rebecca Black as Sara.
Coming just a week after three Al Jeezera journalists were sentenced to seven years imprisonment for “spreading false news” and “aiding or joining the banned Muslim brotherhood”, Mahfouz’s timely play is an act of fierce condemnation against governments which continue to deny its citizens the most basic of human rights.
The second offering of the evening is a much lighter affair. Same is written by playwright and director Deborah Bruce whose debut, Godchild, was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in October last year. The piece, performed by members of Drama Lab from Jersey and directed by Paul Adams, is set in an old people’s home and explores inter-generational connections in the wake of a funeral. It is a warm, sharply observed and brilliantly funny play and this young ensemble more than do it justice.
The first two scenes are broadly comic in tone. In the first, Josie’s teenage grandchildren reminisce about memories of their Nana whilst updating their Facebook and pillaging dresser drawers for packets of wine gums. It’s ‘like’ this and ‘oh my god’ that, but Bruce’s sharp ear for pre-teen chit-chat ensures that the colloquialisms never feel strained. Morgan Gregory looks a star in the making, turning in a performance of supreme confidence and utter hilarity as the young Harry.
In the second scene, Josie’s funeral is of inconsequential importance to the other residents of the old people’s home. Instead they reflect on their own memories with dry humour and latent sadness. Stan Holley is excellent as Eddie, reeling off an unrelenting Beckett-esque stream of consciousness with dour indifference, only stopping when, at last, someone responds to him directly.
The two generations come together in a formally daring final scene in which a younger Josie is courted by a uniformed soldier whilst three of her grandchildren sit simultaneously texting and eating Wotsits by her bedside. As the scene ends, the music swells and so too did the tear ducts of director Paul Adams who could be seen in floods of tears at the curtain call. And rightly so. He should be thrilled with the skill and commitment of this young ensemble.
Connections remains central to the work of the National Theatre and their ambition that young people, wherever they are in the UK, should have the chance to take part in theatre of the highest quality. Same is exactly that.
National Theatre Connections 2014 is running in various venues at the National Theatre until 7 July. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.