ENERZAYA GUNDALAI reviews the 24 February performances of the seventh ACT II Festival at the Arcola Theatre.

A quick online search for the ACT II Festival floats many a promise to the theatre-goer: the largest ever inter-university theatrical collaboration in London, and new plays written by students that were developed under the nurturing wing of professional playwrights, including Sasha Hails and David Farr. Over 100 students and 15 universities were involved, creating 13 shows spread across 4 performances. Hosted at the award-winning, off West End Arcola Theatre, the potential of the fledgling writers, directors and actors seemed immense to me, as I arrived for the first matinee and evening performances.

The themes the festival approached were modern and relevant: contemporary plays written by students for students. Certainly, no generation of playwrights before our own had as much to say about identity, gender fluidity and artificial intelligence. If the ACT II festival served as a time capsule for the 2010s, we would be left with a well-intended representation of our time.

A Murmuration of Starlings by Toby Moran Mylett afforded the audience a glimpse into the day-to-day trials of love for four couples. Mylett implied that regardless of your sexual orientation, complications arise out of love. The audience was granted access to snippets of private conversations, conversations we may have in our own lives, with a caring but unabashedly heterosexual parent, or a confused and closeted partner. Some of these were cringingly awkward and some close to the heart. Unfortunately, the audience was in the dark for much of the show, both figuratively, because the show never brought the couples altogether to make one coherent statement, and literally, because the stage lights were turned off during the seemingly countless transitions between scenes.

Kate Willis’s An Eye for an Eye played out like some implausible, young adult soap opera. Themes touched upon included mobbing in a school, biracial friendship and the assisted suicide of a terminally ill parent. Unfortunately, for one step taken forward by Willis in exploring the complexity of social dynamics, two steps were taken backwards in the last scene, in which the protagonist is murdered by his classmates, leaving the audience to speculate how, where and why.

Meanwhile, Pedro Rothstein Perez’s Purple Onions added another post-apocalyptic story to the already staggering pop culture stockpile of dystopian fiction. Predictably, a robot (W) destroyed all of the human race, except for its two creators, a woman (X) and a man (Y). Unpredictably, the male character was played by a female actress. But disappointingly, this modern fairy-tale didn’t manage to make familiar tropes new and exciting. The characters resolve their drama by the end of the play, and come together to form one happy, queer, humanoid-robotic family.

As convenient as it is to pin blame for the quality of the plays on the students front and backstage, the technical and structural constraints faced by the students were far from easy to overcome. The prescribed length by the festival organisers for each play was half an hour. This begs the question whether it is possible for a production to interact meaningfully with an audience in such a short span of time.

Vogue Giambri, playwright of Robbed, seemed to be aware that the challenges faced by ordinary plays are magnified when these plays are fitted into a thirty-minute box. Rather than setting up an intricate web of relationships and complex backstories for her characters that fall short with the fall of the curtain, Giambri’s story was straightforward and hilarious. Her characters were a spectacle to watch: a hillbilly and a phone-obsessed teenager. They attempt to rob a house, getting distracted in the process by each other’s company, a bottle of wine and a blow-up male sex doll. The audience may not have been left speechless by the play’s portrayal of the human condition, but they were left in stitches and for the first time that day, the applause they granted the cast was genuine.

The ACT II Festival grows each year, incorporating a greater number of students and universities. I only saw a handful of the shows it had to offer, and the plays of this year are in no way indicative of what to expect next year. I look forward to the regeneration of the festival in 2020, and the new faces and plays it will bring.

ACT II Festival ran at the Arcola Theatre on 24th February and 3rd March. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Lucía Cantó-Mira.