Review: PlayWROUGHT, Arcola Theatre

 “Is there a drug for that, a pill to take…?”

A rather ambitious but certainly admirable affair, the Arcola’s PlayWROUGHT festival features 12 pieces of new writing over a week, showcasing a wide range of playwrights from the Arcola community in a series of rehearsed readings in the basement studio there. I do like a bit of new writing and readings are always fun when they involve actors that I like, I love getting to see another facet to their work in a more informal setting and so I was more than happy to book for an evening that featured Lucy Ellinson, Michelle Terry and Paul Ready. Imagine how happy I felt when favourite-round-these-parts Elliot Cowan was added to the bill!

Nina-Marie Gardner’s Sherry & Narcotics was an intriguing start to the evening. Grieving for her father, American Mary finds comfort where she can on a trip abroad, settling on an online connection to wistful Irish poet Jake who swiftly invites her to Manchester from the London where she has stopped for the time being. There, they attempt a putative romance but their individual hang-ups add up to one hell of a mess, what with her barely controlled alcoholism and the child he has neglected to mention yet through it all, the impulse to try and find happiness remains strong.

For me it didn’t quite hit the mark, mainly due to an incongruous set of recurring details that located the story firmly in the near past (they meet on MySpace, there are no smartphones etc) but give the play a dated feel rather than a necessary location in time. That said, Mary and Jake’s interactions were given a blistering intensity by some excellent casting from director Yael Shavit – best actress fosterIAN nominee Lucy Ellinson was utterly captivating as she voiced the bruised fragility of a woman reeling from the harshness of the world and Michael Colgan’s flaky Jake was imbued with enough charm to make him an appealing prospect despite his own baggage.

But the main prize for me was Mark Sands’ Cracked and the chance to see another best actress fosterIAN nominee in Michelle Terry, the marvellous Paul Ready and the much-missed-from-our-stages Elliot Cowan, alongside Daisy Ridley and Ayesha Antoine. And it was a piece of writing that I enjoyed more, weaving together the stories of two women – the one Aimee an 18 year old on a disastrous holiday in Ibiza, the other Jane her former college teacher dealing with a would-be novelist boyfriend – the thread connecting them turning out to be cocaine.

For on the flight home, Aimee’s best friend Denise collapses and dies when a package she is smuggling bursts open inside her and Aimee is left to face the consequences of being a suspected drug trafficker. And after the stresses of 12 months supporting Rob as he writes his first great novel, Jane finds herself seeking comfort in a coke-fuelled haze with unfortunate consequences. What I enjoyed most about Sands’ writing was the even-handed way in which the discussion about drugs was handled for a good proportion of the play, the kind of frank honesty that one rarely sees.

It would have been nice to see a little of that equivocation carried through to the end rather than the definitive attitudes that prevailed but you can’t have everything. And his gift for creating wryly warm banter made Jane’s strand of the story particularly strong, especially given the outstanding performances. Terry and Ready paired up beautifully as an utterly believable young(ish) London couple, a palpable sense of chemistry making the hardships they end up enduring genuinely gutting. And Cowan as Rob’s highly successful, old uni rival was a sleazily seductive winner.

Fans of Cowan (and who isn’t…) were in luck as he covered three roles in the end – he was also a menacing/hilarious Spanish gangster and a vaguely patronising headteacher called Mr Foster (I swear I had nothing to do with it!) so it was nice to see some versatility even within the constraints of a reading. Daisy Ridley’s Aimee was also impressive as the young woman trying to dodge her way through the aftermath of her friend’s death and Ayesha Antoine was another who was notable in a number of smaller roles. 

So a well worthy evening of interesting theatre – I’d definitely be interested to see how both plays, but particularly Cracked, develop into future life – and a great initiative from the Arcola, recognising that their lack of a literary department has created a developmental gap and actually doing something about it. One more day of this festival remains so if you can’t make it over to Dalston Saturday night, then I’d keep your eyes peeled for the next one in order to get your own box of theatrical treats.

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