New Writing Festival

GEORGIA Kirby reviews UCL Drama Society’s New Writing Festival.

Have you ever felt that you’re closer to your phone than to the people around you? The intrusive nature of mobile phones featured heavily in the UCL Drama Society’s New Writing Festival, which showcased four plays by up and coming student writers. The first two plays related to technology and social media, and the way that both limit our capacity to listen to others and look outside our own lives, undermining fundamental human relationships. The second two were more focused in sexuality and human relationships, with the final play, The Empty Chair, standing as a striking political statement through its powerful response to the #MeToo movement.

The show opened with Keep Scrolling, written and directed by Phoebe Garthwaite, a perceptive, satirical take on the increasingly controlling nature of phones over our lives, to the point at which phones acquire semi-human identities and eclipse personal interactions. Phones were depicted as our best friends, our comfort blankets in new situations. The play began with an arresting portrayal of a man having an orgasm to his phone, highlighting the disturbing usurpation of human relations by technology. It also featured a captivating duologue about the inanity of Facebook and Instagram, which deftly encapsulated the way that social media makes the meaningless meaningful and vice versa.

Abs McGovern in Keep Scrolling. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Garthwaite.

The depiction of increasing human solipsism was continued in the next play, Soapbox, written and directed by Ella Fidler. This was billed as a ‘collection of monologues that serve the intention of forcing people to think about the things that they are trying to forget.’ Whilst presenting a thoughtful meditation on the tension between the need for compassion against innate human inertia and selfishness, I felt that the complex staging, involving characters being surrounded by intertwining bodies, sometimes detracted from the power of the monologues themselves. However, the play was particularly thought-provoking in its shrewd highlighting of the awkwardness that people seem to feel over openly giving charitably to those living rough on the streets.  

Sam Dodhgson and Nikodem Janarek in ‘Soapbox’. Photo courtesy of Ashley Hayward.

By contrast, the following play, The B in the Room (written by Joey Jepps and directed by Joey and Daniel Lubin) was a master-class in slick staging and direction. It was a two-hander, with great chemistry established between the protagonists, Dana (Miranda Evans) and Elliott (Max Rees), both of whom experienced parallel journeys of self-discovery to grasp a more profound understanding of themselves. I really enjoyed the sensitive balance achieved between poignancy and humour in the play’s exploration of desire, sexuality and self-knowledge, such as in the scene where both characters were made more aware of their repressed bisexuality by watching porn. The play subtly emphasises the difficulties posed to the young Elliot’s sexuality by the rigidity of church doctrine, and the guilt evoked by such doctrine in response to homosexual urges, which can problematise religious belief. The portrayal of Elliot’s confusion at his friend Mitchell’s secret relationship with another boy was also particularly touching, picking up on the trust that underlies all human bonds and yet can be so easily and painfully broken.

Max Rees and Miranda Evans on set of The B In The Room. Photo courtesy of Kim Tran.

The showcase closed with a harrowing depiction of sexual violence in The Empty Chair, written by Polly Creed and directed by Seren John-Wood. This hard-hitting play that had several audience members in tears was strikingly staged, with a team of ensemble actors being manipulated like rag dolls in routines of physical theatre that complemented the punchy, fast-paced dialogue. The material was drawn from real interviews and discussions with students in London and explored the culture of sexual misconduct within the theatre and film industries. We were torn between pity for Ingrid (Róisín Tapponi), the ageing actress attempting to blind herself to her husband’s predatory tendencies, and disgust at the brutality of his sexual assaults, which were revealed through graphic, brilliantly delivered monologues from each character. The play perfectly captured the different attitudes between different generations towards sexual assault and the extent of the survivor’s culpability. It ended the showcase on a profound and deeply moving note, highlighting the scarring nature of sexual assault and the importance of listening to survivors to encourage them to speak out.

Ema Cavoli, Freddie House, Bláithín Carroll, Róisín Tapponi in ‘The Empty Chair’. Photo courtesy of Sophie O’Sullivan.

We were left in no doubt of the need to leave our phones be and concentrate on the real, serious issues that threaten our privacy, our sexuality, and our relationships today. The Empty Chair stood alone as a play of a different bracket, since its subject matter gave it a much more explicitly political nature. It continued the discussion of sexuality in The B in the Room, but derived so much emotional impact from the fact that is was giving a voice to true stories. This contrasted with the speculative nature of the first two plays, where the damaging powers of technology were fantasised and hyperbolised. The showcase moved us from an imagined world to one that was made all the more disturbing by its grounding in reality.

The New Writing Festival ran at The Water Rats from 11th-13th March. Find more information here.

The Empty Chair has made it into the finals of the London Student Drama Festival which will take place at the Duchess Theatre on 19th March. Find tickets and more information here.

Featured image designed by George Jibson.