Review: Downing Festival of New Writing 2019

Anna Stephenson 8 March 2019
Image Credit: Downing Festival of New Writing 2019 via Facebook

★★★★

An apocalyptic gay romance, a dark tale of jigsaw obsession and serial murder, and a highly educational piece of history coursework on the search for the mysterious star jelly. It’s more than I would expect from a typical night at the theatre; if you want a dizzying variety of up and coming creativity in a short and punchy format, this is exactly the show for you. ‘You ruin a fella’s jigsaw, you get what’s coming to you’, intones Benjamin Gibson ominously, and I know I’m in for an unconventional, gripping assortment of absurd but brilliantly raw talent.

The Downing Festival of New Writing, now in its fifth year, is a selection of original pieces written by Cambridge students. Nine short plays performed over three nights, this celebration of fledgling creativity is unlike any other I’ve seen. This is largely due to its format— after all the pieces have been performed, a panel of experienced theatre professionals offer constructive feedback and advice on how to develop the works further.

It’s refreshing that, as the programme declares, you, the audience member, are a ‘vital part of the process’. While audience participation in the Q&A session was fairly limited, due to lack of questions, the setup encourages everyone who sees a show to get involved critically, and see the pieces not as fixed but as malleable works in progress that will shift and grow. This is a big part of what makes the atmosphere so electric; even when pieces are flawed, the format is dynamic and encourages personal investment.

Seeing Cerian Craske, a first year student and first-time playwright, put on her show There’s No Telling (co-directing with Izzy Smith) and getting workable, positive insight into how to improve it made me feel more optimistic and excited about Cambridge theatre than I ever have. Theatre here can seem intimidating and closed-off, particularly given the amount of experience some students arrive with¬ — this open and encouraging space is exactly what Cambridge needs in order to demystify the process and further fresh talent.

Two of the three short plays explored place and identity (Welsh and Orcadian), with very impressive accent performances by Death Valley by Night actors Lara Cosmetatos and Benjamin Gibson as well as actors in Star Jelly. A jigsaw box of Death Valley serves as both an escapist vision of somewhere where it isn’t dull and rainy, and a means of hiding a dark secret; both the feeling of entrapment in dark Wales and the urge to escape prove dangerous.

The sets were fairly minimal, but the staging choices often unorthodox and inventive. Panellist Alex Lass and Star Jelly writer Benedict Mulcare discussed repurposing pieces from radio to stage; while the recorded voices emanating from Orcadian teenager Aron’s (wonderfully played by Ryan Morgan) iPhone provided a backbone to the piece, Mulcare and directors Maria Calinescu and Riona Millar deftly adapted his original radio concept in a way that felt easy and unforced.

Not all choices were as successful. While Craske’s story of a lovelorn gay young man in the 1980s emphasised his isolation by having him sit centre stage, with all other characters stood facing the audience, the complete lack of eye contact between any of them throughout doesn’t quite sustain the emotional weight of even such a brief piece.
The scripts occasionally suffer from lack of clarity or overwriting, but are lifted in each piece by a thrilling lyricism and wit. With a stark, unnaturalistic set, Craske still evokes a sharp sense of place through rich, sensory lines such as ‘stencilled against the peeling yellow paint’.

As a panellist pointed out, while laugh-out-loud moments were rare, the quality of the writing and the sheer energy of the actors made me almost constantly ‘smile out loud’, in awe of the latest swoop of the unexpected. The festival brings together seasoned performers and creatives with newcomers in a way that feels democratic and committed to developing confidence and flair. Whether you’ve not got involved in theatre at all, or if you’re a dyed-in-the-velvet thesp, this production brings out the best in audience members and cast and crew alike.