The National Theatre’s New Views playwriting competition for 14 to 19-year-olds throws up some real winners in its shortlist.
This year’s New Views programme saw the National Theatre engage with 74 schools across the UK, offering workshops with writers like Luke Barnes, Dawn King, Winsome Pinnock and Chino Odimba to help 14 to 19-year olds learn about writing plays. Over 300 plays were then submitted and 10 shortlisted. The winning play – If We Were Older – is receiving a full production and the other 9 are getting the rehearsed reading treatment, some of which I was able to catch.
I really enjoyed It’s More Than Okay Levi by Robert Lazarus (Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, Hertfordshire) – crying at plays about Alzheimer’s is my jam (the kind of emotional torture I like to put myself through…) and even in the reduced circumstances of this reading, I have to say there was a tear or two prickling away.
Lazarus’ tale of a man struggling to come to terms with early onset is powerfully and emotively done, depicting a tangle of relationships with family and friends that can’t help but be tested as his mental acuity declines. A late scene with his son proved the most affecting, with its hints at possible genetic predisposition, and the weaving in of F Scott Fitzgerald references layered in a beautiful subtlety to what can be a devastating subject to explore.
Similarly unafraid to tackle hard-hitting issues, Rachel Lane’s £39 (The Becket School, Nottingham) delves into life in a horrifically unforgiving benefits system with a side order of reality TV exploitation. Amping up the highly theatrical side of her writing, this emerged as one of the more intriguing pieces, excitingly reflective of a desire to tell stories in different ways.
The heart of £39’s story lies in the senstively depicted relationship between bipolar mother Jessica and her six-year-old daughter, one of those impossibly wise kids (“She lies because she loves me”) and all credit to Emma Naomi and Annabel Brook for realising it so well under Shane Dempsey’s direction. Lane could perhaps afford to rein back a little on the dastardliness of the benefits officer (would she really have been so uncaring about childcare arrangements? Actually, I’d believe it of this administration…) but I really admired the structuring of her play. More please.
Ashes to Ashes, Oolong to Assam by Sol Alberman (Camden School for Girls, London) picked a different path by disarming us with some neatly observational humour before winding up in Secret History-esque intrigue. And as Annabel Bates’ excellent Kay chatters on endless about cup of teas to the taciturn Simon (Joseph Adelakun), the depth of the grief they’re both scarcely trying to mask become more and more apparent.
The nature of the genre and the truncated lengths here mean that an awful lot has to be unspooled in a short final burst and if dramatically there’s a little work to be done, the crispness and insightful nature of Alberman’s dialogue is a delight. The chat about what we really mean when we’re talking about the weather is solid gold, and all the haiku work was inspired.
And last but by no means least, Star Gaze’s Blue is a Boy’s Colour (Camden School for Girls, London) returns us to the hot button topic section of the programme, offering a much needed shift in perspective on transgender narratives. Teenagers Anna and Blue have something to tell their mother and they’re not sure she’s going to like it, not least because their pyromanic brother just got his hands on a neighbour’s dog.
For Blue is a manifestation of Anna’s emergent transgender identity, a voice that comforts and cajoles, explains and exasperates, as Anna goes through the process of determining her identity. And where Gaze excels is in showing the complexity of such a decision and the weight of so many other external factors that come into play when coming out – the interplay between personal freedom and familial responsbility being a crucial one. It also helps having the marvellous Shannon Tarbet in your cast. I’d love to see this one develop in the future.