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London Student Drama Festival: New Writing Competition - Semi-Finals Review

The New Writing competition, hosted by the London Student Drama Festival, is a chance for student writers from universities all around the city, and within the UoL, to get their teeth into playwriting. The competition, which had already been through its preliminary stages, narrowed the submissions down into 9 semi-finalists, putting on their performances over the course of two nights at the Pleasance Theatre and being judged by two professional judges from the London Theatre scene. I tottered on down to have a look as well.


23 Hours to Live by Bryan Chan - LSESU Drama Society

23 Hours to Live describes itself as a tragicomedy and this is best illustrated by a line half way through, when the main character, Charlie, discovers she’s going to transform into a zombie. “Am I gonna wanna eat brains?” she says, taking a bite out of a cookie. The story follows the final, you guessed it, twenty-three hours of someone who has been infected by a pathogen of some description and is supervised by the enigmatic “Dr Terminus” and her assistant. For the first few minutes, it’s rather hard to have any idea exactly what’s happening but that very much mirrors Charlie’s experience as she is brought screaming onto the stage. The play was, according to the writer, an examination of the actual act of dying and this it does well. The piece itself felt vaguely reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead in the mostly humorous treatment it gave death itself. “Dr Terminus”, for example, is suggested to be named after the final station at the end of a railway line. It was enjoyable, if a little intense at times, and was ultimately crowned by the good doctor’s assistant who gave a wonderfully funny performance.


In Transit by Molly Sweeney – Central School of Speech and Drama

After this piece was finished, the writer said that she envisaged this story as part of a larger play and it very much had that feel. Initially vaguely resembling a sort of Waiting for Godot vibe, the main character, an unnamed journalist, tells the story of how she’s ended up waiting at a station in a sandstorm for a train. The story she told was of a series of harrowing experiences whilst she was attempting to break through as a journalist. The piece, being extremely dialogue heavy - and every part of that dialogue, bar, I think, one line, coming from the main character – could have easily become too dense for an audience to properly appreciate. However, thanks to its use of physical theatre, and the interesting ways in which the two cast members illustrated each stage of the story, it kept one engaged throughout. Ultimately I enjoyed the piece but I struggled to see how, other than a couple of allusions, the piece was focused on climate change. It very much seemed to be more interested in the disconnection between people provided by a world changed by the media.


TBC by Jordan Belaiche – SOAS Drama Society

TBC is a play which would undoubtedly absolutely detest being categorized as “meta” and yet that’s exactly what it is. The entire piece is about student plays, and the theatre world in general, and spent twenty five minutes essentially directly targeting the entire audience, which was refreshing, and by extension, jabbing at itself. The ‘writer’ who spent the entire piece smoking on the right hand side of the stage put on layers of, what was presumably, irony and remained silent as she looked on at the audience. The idea which could have easily become gimmicky after the initial point managed to keep up its momentum and had the audience laughing consistently throughout. The playwright, afterwards, described the piece as ‘revenge’ for previous plays and this anger clearly manifests itself in the humour throughout. As if I needed any more proof for this statement, the conclusion of the play had the producer on stage murdering every other person involved with the “production”. Of all the pieces on the first night of the semi-finals, this one stood out as the funniest and the most interestingly done.


The Interview by Amanda Koh – Imperial College London Dramasoc

The Interview was a piece which didn’t seem to entirely know exactly what it wanted to speak about. Its main character, Alex, is shoved into a ‘waiting room’ which eventually turns out to be a waiting room for the afterlife maintained by the “respective higher power”. Given the fact that the most dominant character on stage other than Alex is his own thoughts, portrayed by an actor, who seems to play the devil’s advocate in all of his interactions between the other two characters, one would have expected perhaps some more interesting internal exploration. However, given that the piece also argues for the value of maintaining the middle ground between extremes (in this case two supporting characters who seem to have entirely different views to one another and indeed Alex) it seems that the ‘waiting room’ scenario serves as more of a platform for the characters to meet more than as a significant part of the plot or what the writer sought to discuss. As such, a less controversial platform may have been a bit more flexible.


The Women’s March by Carys Hughs – KCL King's Players

Carys Hughs’ “The Women’s March” was a tasteful and elegant series of monologues by various different speakers from varying backgrounds set at a Women’s march. The style of the piece was so simplistic that it stood out as an obviously heartfelt call for equality in a society which should have made this its priority decades ago. It’s a credit to the performers of the piece that each monologue felt extremely personal and engaging yet managed to entirely avoid being stilted or preachy given the presumably fictional stories they were supposed to deliver. It was simply a number of men, women, and others explaining why it was that they were at the march. These reasons ranged from issues affecting family members to direct experiences of injustice. The simple, yet powerful piece made a series of straightforward points, and the fact that they were able to do this with such minimalism shows how pressing and how obvious the problem still is.


Dead Man Talking – Jack Fairhurst – RHSU Drama Society

This piece was, again, an exploration of death except from the angle of a murder this time. The play, featuring four actors, but only really two characters, begins with a self-proclaimed “hitwoman” sitting on the floor of a parking structure mumbling to herself and writing in a notepad. As her apparent mark comes along, she asks him “head or stomach” to which he somewhat confusedly answers stomach. He is then promptly shot in the stomach. The kind of humour, in similar vein to that of the “23 Hours to Live” piece from the previous night, cast the piece into the realm of a tragicomedy and explored the bizarre twenty minutes or so spent with the hitwoman and her target. The piece’s highlight was the central part of the story in which, somehow, the hitwoman ends up telling a bedtime story to the dying man and she is given a more fleshed out perspective. The piece was, overall, rather funny with moments of weirdly jarring chemistry between the two characters. Having said that, the twist at the end, where it emerges that she has killed the wrong man, felt a little bit redundant in a way, and it seems like the play could have finished at the conclusion of the ‘bedtime story.’


Mending Chasms – Kayla Rivera - Regent’s University London

Watching this piece felt like we, the audience, had been dropped into the middle of a story which had already passed its climax and we were watching the aftermath of what were presumably some traumatising, obviously dramatic events. Unfortunately, the segment of the story which we were shown was one in which there was a distinct lack of real drama and the twenty minutes were mainly a somewhat confusing exchange between a brother and the sister he had abandoned at a young age after their parents had died. This particular section of the story seemed to be oriented around bottles of family water of some kind? A point which, in truth, felt bizarre and somewhat irrelevant. Although the writer explained that the water was supposed to be symbolic of something over which the family would bond, that didn’t really help the confusion. It could, perhaps, be justified by the fact that it’s rather hard to express this kind of complicated familial estrangement in twenty minutes, but regardless of that fact, the apparent focus on bottled water was a little weird.


The Empty Chair – Polly Creed – UCL Drama Society

Polly Creed’s Empty Chair deals with an inherently sensitive topic in that it’s set in a fictional movie star’s kitchen and focuses on a fictionalised version of the horrible events which have been coming out of Hollywood over the past few months. Given this, its chilling portrayal and exploration of individual traumas relating to sexual assault was handled in a way which did justice to the sensitivity such a conversation requires whilst remaining hauntingly realistic. The use of both silence and choral poetry after initial scenes displaying such outwardly ecstatic and joyful relationships highlighted, and in a way mirrored, the terrible, corrosive effects that the types of experiences recounted can have. The piece is bold to tackle these crucial issues but does so in an artistically truthful and yet self-conscious way, unarguably making it one of the most important pieces which was on display.


Pangea – Amdanda Koh - Goldsmiths Drama Society

Pangea was, quite simply, beautiful chaos. The piece essentially set out to demonstrate that the modern world of politics was more akin to a gameshow than anything else and we, the voters, were ultimately making fairly meaningless choices. The piece began with the setting up of the gameshow accompanied by an ominous voice speaking over the top about choice. There was, after that, an odd, drawn out – yet hilarious - segment about brushing one’s teeth. Or, at least, that’s what it seemed to be about. Presumably the point here was to highlight the importance of the outward appearance which the entire piece did very well. This core point, of the meaningless of modern political choices, was presented in such an absurdly funny way that it was a joy to watch. Exactly how much of this was down to writing and how much was down to the spectacular performances of the cast and the director is unclear but regardless, every person involved with the piece played their part admirably to produce a fantastically fun work of madness/art.


Overall, I had a wonderful time at both events and it’s encouraging to see such a breadth of talent on display at London Universities. If I were to put forward my own winners, I would have suggested “Pangea”, “TBC” and “The Empty Chair” but most of the other pieces were also strong in their own ways. The final, on the 19th, is sure to be a tight competition between some very talented writers and performers. I wish them the best of luck.