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And the winner is - Mark Daniels for 'Coronavirus - A Great British Farce' - bravura, absurdist writing - KEEP THEATRE ALIVE!
Mary Chater
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And the winner is - Mark Daniels for 'Coronavirus - A Great British Farce' - bravura, absurdist writing - KEEP THEATRE ALIVE!

In association with #PropsMentalHealth our #short #playwriting #competition final last night with 4 plays for the judges to choose from.

Shakespeare in Italy Lockdown, Taboo and You Short Play Competition, March 11th 2021

Review by Simon Jenner


Lockdown, Taboo and You is a Shakespeare in Italy initiative responding to lockdown and in partnership with Props Mental Health. They facilitate networking and support for the Arts and Entertainment industry ranging from help to those in crisis to advice and it’s run by Laura Duthie CoupAr. 6ft from cic provide training. An inspiring competition with 91 entries, the first four winners are premiered with a later reading of four runners-up.

After the first competition based around The Decameron, these four superb short plays herald in this second competition a new reach for Mary Chater and Collette Parker’s Shakespeare in Italy. Their productions and masterclasses another with Janet Suzman follows on March 22nd – are legendary enough. These competitions though will hopefully outlast the lockdown that prompted their latest inception. These were already – albeit differently – in the pipes beforehand, with plays in womens’ prisons being another outreach project, currently on hold.


John Platten Black Dogs and Danish Men

Mary Chater: Laura
Martin Vaughan Lewis: Magnus

This opening litanic check-list ‘hands, hands’ seems initially headed for superior Radio 4 comedy, the kind featuring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam in Conversations from a Long Marriage. Grumpy teacher Magnus appeased and chided by Laura by turns, seems terminally unable to come to terms with lockdown. ‘Anti-oxidants?’ He’s virtue-railing at stray unmasked dog-owners. Seemingly comic, comedy allows darkness to seep in. A call from their daughter flays back anxiety.

It’s not the dogs and owners outside, but Magnus and his perpetual ownership of that loping black dog within that chases down its hapless owner. More like a Hound of Hell than Heaven. Meanwhile their corporeal dog gets arrested by the police. Magnus refuses the NHS, pleading pandemic priorities.

Chater’s anxiously gentle probing as Laura counterpoints the grump and growl of Vaughan Lewis’ tailspin, including locking himself in the toilet his ‘happy place’ as the comic grump moves to grief. With Soduku and no… numbers twos…. Even these inanimate papers cause upset.

It’s a play with a high-impact ending, way beyond the grump at its start. ‘That black dog of yours needs to socially distance or chase off dogs, the real ones.’ ‘They’re all real ones’ smiles Magnus sadly. This understated study of what Lewis Walport calls malignant sadness is excoriating and quietly cathartic.


Stephanie D Lewis A View From the Middle

Ida Casilli: Dalia
Paul Westwood: Doug
Emily Rayner: Lindsay

A twenty-year married couple in bed (Ida Casilli’s Dalia, Paul Westwood’s Doug) contemplate their eldest child, daughter Lindsay (Emily Rayner), and patter children’s rhymes in a strained manner for two very young sons over the child monitor, then get skewered with more adult ripostes from Lindsay.

It’s March 2020. Lindsay chides her parents: ‘If you think I’m looking after your two mistakes after your death…’ with the brittle acuity of adolescence. Lindsay’s the least conflicted: their eldest tenses, ready to break out.

It’s soon clear the couple are also contemplating the end of their marriage – rational engineer (‘robotic’ Dalia calls him) Doug returns to the family for lockdown from trial separation; having had his own flat and promptly met an ‘impressively stacked hygienist’ he’s sneaked off for sex. Coming home for lockdown holds a mixed reception.

Dalia though has prepared a surprise. And after that, his explosive emotion sparks another. That jawline, that revived emotion Dalia notes. Is it enough? Strong performances from Casilli and Westwood. Rayner’s Lindsay is an alert presence, though her role’s necessarily less central and integrated, carping gnomically from the sidelines. The end is shattering.


Mark Daniels Coronavirus a Great British Farce

Martin Nicholls: Speaker
Lachlan Forlong: Joe

Imagine one character runs round the other. A fast-moving absurdist play in the mind of Joe with his own Speaker with surreally disturbed verbal exercises spoken by Nicholls as if a kind of male Alexa ups the tempo. ‘We’re staying close to the science on that one’ just one of the oft-repeated sentences that twist themselves. As phrases crumble morph and nightmare themselves you wonder what’s objectively happening to Joe. Think Ionesco and Beckett talking manically over coffee.

It gets even better as Speaker rushes ‘good news’ scrambling back and forth a mix of warm hands and vaccination and a variety of hyperbolic justifications for essential key-workers. Unkempt hair? There has to be a budget. There’s a Ministry of Silly Viruses bubbling somewhere.

Daniels’ ear is infallible: whether for rushing non-sequitors and the Pythonesque in government science bulletins (not to mention Hancock’s Half Hours), or sideswipes at Sunak, space, Eat Out to Help Out rounded with a garish litanic trip of sentences where line and re-phrasings return, leap over each other, combine in writhing night-sweats: ‘Two metres…. It’s like going to Mars, it may not be as far as the moon. We’re staying close to the science on that one…’

When Forlong’s beautifully appalled Joe starts talking to his humming fridge you know it makes sense. Speaker adumbrates every idiocy we’ve been subjected to – including a Churchillian rally against the virus, including the idiocy of eating out…. Nicholls emits a masterclass of crazed British officialdom including sideswipes at Brexit and praise for … British wizards.

But who’s the fridge? And what does that make Joe? Every bit of news we’ve had dinned into us recently is torqued through the venturi tube of Nicholls’ imagining. Nothing is sacred, including vaccine-sceptics or fast fridges. A frantic ramp up leaps to a slow devastated fade. And where the hell’s the Vienetta?


Becca Colmer Rock Paper Scissors

Tiffany Parker: Hannah
Florence Roberts: Amy
Ruby Campbell: Rachel

Three sisters meet up where the mother is in hospital. It’s not going well.

The use of Green Screens to portray a hospital car park keeps the production sophisticated with an air of what it could be like outside lockdown.

Laconic elliptical dialogue, full of brittle repartee is vividly dispatched by the three actors - Tiffany Parker’s sensible detached Hannah, Florence Roberts’ artist Amy, closest to their artist mother shouldering care (that conciliatory middle sister role), Ruby Campbell’s Rachel, the youngest with her own issues. ‘Yeah… told my doctor I was thinking of taking my daily exercise across the motorway… he put me on a CBT course where the leader starts with the camera angled at his crotch.’ ‘You don’t live near a motorway…. It’s against the rules…’

Roberts poignantly portrays what it’s like to be the one bereft of her art, who somehow lying about taking it up again somehow finds it in herself to return and make it true. Their mother barely recognizes the resulting sketch, but it’s enough; a sad reward for shouldering so much, but a redemptive one. You feel Amy’s given most, but might finally end the most fulfilled. Rachel’s fragility, Hannah’s bleak insecurity seem ironically even more hopeless by comparison. Covid’s inverted hierarchies, hopes and all desperate rushes at happiness.

It’s Hannah who concludes eloquently about the virus’ effects. ‘It’s taken my job, my savings, my weight lost last summer eating fucking lettuce, it’s taken my mum….’ And who’s to be next of kin? Their mother’s deliberately not told them. Time to make that sign with their fists: rock, paper, scissors.

This is an acutely observed realist play, with emotive depth and qualities of endurance, layers of unspoken resentment and exquisitely painful dialogue.

At the end of these readings, the judges departed into a breakout room to decide the winner. All deserve a showcase in a re-opened theatre, and all actors executed their parts as if before that audience, uniformly strong. The two final plays were particularly brilliantly written and acted – such material exhilarates you to your best. Frankly the choice between them came down to a straw. You might like to guess.

Lockdown, Taboo and You

Shakespeare in Italy

Directed by Collette Parker on March 11th. Curated by co-founder Mary Chater. Further readings tba.

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