There’s a reason why so many plays in development veer towards dystopia rather than a feel-good factor: the latter is likelier to result in a response along the lines of “So what?”, and there are so many levels of dystopia to consider that the possibilities are, as Emerge demonstrates, practically infinite. Of as much interest as the extracts or ‘scratches’ themselves, performed brilliantly by a company that had rehearsed the pieces enough not to need a single prompt between them (this may come as a surprise but this is quite an achievement for an event of this nature, in my experience), were discussions between a theatre industry panel, some of whom were rather insistent on encouraging these new plays in development to place greater emphasis on real-life validity. I do wonder whether the concept of suspending one’s disbelief at the theatre door is being somewhat abandoned.
The Phlebotomist by Ella Road sees B (Nicola Taylor) in conversation with C (Amy Cotter). The characters do have proper names, but I won’t venture beyond what the show’s programme proffers. Despite the play’s title, the panel insisted on referring to B as a ‘nurse’ or ‘doctor’, which I found amusing at the time: there is such a thing trying to analyse what isn’t there! Set, apparently, in the ‘near future’, C has a certain medical test result (I shan’t give too much away here) that hasn’t gone in her favour, or so she thinks. There may, seeing just the one scene out of a full-length play in isolation, be a hint of melodrama going on, or at least irrationalism (if indeed that’s an ‘ism’), as she hasn’t actually been diagnosed with anything.
Our illustrious industry panel seemed rather confused by the course of events. I am not sure why a one-scene two-hander about one subject prompted a near cross-examination of the playwright in the post-show discussion. Their call for greater realism overall jarred with a call for less simultaneous dialogue (that is, both characters overlapping their lines) in the early stages of the scene. The latter request, frankly, should be dismissed by the writer. It is entirely feasible that someone who has just been given life-changing news with potentially catastrophic consequences would react passionately, and the phlebotomist’s simultaneous attempts to reassure there and then will almost inevitably result in some overlap. It’s not the first play to have characters talking over one another, and it won’t be the last.
Bridle by Stephanie Martin sees F (Ella Road, this time showcasing her acting prowess) in some sort of interrogation room. There’s a strong sense of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, as this lady’s day-to-day movements and contributions to social media platforms are all known to the authorities, who are now insisting she sign miscellaneous confirmations and acknowledgements with regards to what are considered unpalatable or immoral activity. What’s unnerving is that this is set in Britain, again in the ‘near future’ – and the technology is now out there to track people in this way should the Government pass legislation to do so. In a way, it sort of has, in the form of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, known informally as ‘the Snoopers’ Charter’.
As ever with recorded ‘voiceovers’ (this one was voiced by Ben Manz), some at this event were not entirely at ease with its use, detracting as it allegedly does from the immediacy and atmosphere of the live theatre experience. This line of thinking does make me wonder what Starlight Express would be like without its voiceover. Where I did agree with the industry panel was with regards to the volunteering of considerable amounts of personal details so readily and quickly to a distrusted Government body, though I take the playwright’s response on board too: the full version of this piece does, we were assured, include greater resistance in the run-up to the scene we saw.
Bolero by Tatty Hennessey begins with Anne (Isabel Crowe) revealing a sharp and inquisitive mind, able to reel off scientific facts about the human body and the functions of its parts as though she were reciting the alphabet. I was impressed with Crowe’s ability to remember such a dense and fast-paced passage, especially when combined with a second scene, in which her ability to speak is much curtailed. The precise reasons for this are not made clear in the narrative as presented here – part of the wonder of the piece, in my opinion – but she struggles with everyday phrases, and there is talk (for want of a better choice of word) of visits either from or to (I can’t recall which) a speech therapist. Husband Stephen (Howard Horner) insists she forms her sentences properly, but so aggressively that the resultant effect is the opposite of greater fluency.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 has a new offence, in section 76, of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships’, and I wonder if cast and/or creatives are aware that what was on display was a criminal offence, carrying a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. I mention it here purely as a potential avenue to explore as the piece is developed further. Daughter Sammy (Grace Dean) goes for a more compassionate and reasonable approach – this is a play that refuses to stereotype all teenagers / young adults as universally moody and socially awkward. The level of detail is commendable, and both script and acting are incredibly heart-rending.
Biscuit by Reece Connolly was as hilarious as it was hard-hitting. Jack (Will Adolphy) is both head of department (which one is not made clear) and in charge of recruitment of a company. The industry panel were later quick to point out that the core activities of this company could have been better defined – that is, defined at all. This is relevant as Jack tells Lee (Nick Pople), who has come in for an interview for a position at what I will call The Firm, that he will inform competitors about Lee’s less than stellar school career – they went to the same school, albeit in different year groups – thus ensuring Lee will find it difficult if not impossible to seek employment elsewhere if he does not want to accept an offer of employment from Jack.
It does seem indeed odd to sound out The Firm’s competition in this way, and the panel was right to raise reservations. The reason for Lee’s reluctance to join The Firm, having come in for interview, becomes abundantly plain in the end. The beauty in this piece is in a gradual revelation of the narrative. In essence, revenge is a dish best served cold. Emerge had certainly saved its best until last, in a piece that was well written as a stand-alone story but could fit into a longer play – how does the employment relationship work out in the long-run?
All of the pieces presented as part of Emerge – Flux Theatre hopes to do another one in the future, and another, and another, etc. – show remarkable talent and great promise. As a whole it was such compulsive viewing that I took out a pen and a notepad just before the show started, and ended up using neither, as I was genuinely interested in what was going on that I didn’t want to miss anything, even for a second. The idea of including detailed and on-the-spot responses, seen by the public as well as figureheads in the theatre industry, is an excellent one. I would recommend a future Emerge to anyone interested in finding out more about the creative process of bringing plays to life.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.