Review: Downing Festival of New Writing

Image credit: Downing Dramatic Society

The annual Festival of New Writing at Downing is undoubtedly Cambridge’s most popular and prestigious showcase of student-written drama. As with previous years, nine short plays were selected for performance at the beautiful Howard Theatre – I was fortunate enough to attend the second and third nights of the Festival, which showed an astonishing range of bold writing talents we rarely get to see on our stages.  

On Friday, the evening began with perhaps the most outwardly dark of the plays. Set during a wake, Tereza Brala’s Are You Paying Attention? featured two siblings discussing their recently deceased father. The small talk gradually soured, as the audience became privy to the themes of abuse and self-loathing at the centre of a family gathering. It was effectively dramatic for its first half, touching upon difficult themes without feeling exploitative. However, the optimistic resolution felt too easy, an issue stemming primarily from the restrictive length of time together with a desire to tie everything up neatly, as Brala herself mentioned in the interview. The result was a piece that bordered between realism and melodrama, occasionally falling into shouting when silences could have given the dramatic weight the subject demands.

The Egg Consensus by Noah Geelan was a well-placed moment of lightness. A sparklingly witty farce set around a brunch meeting, the play made the most of its simple set-up to deliver moments of comedy that were both broad and subtle. The brunch party devolves into chaos once a guest reveals his wife has been having an affair, resulting in a manic breakdown by Rob Ryan’s hen-pecked husband that culminated in the gross and hilarious decimation of a plate of scrambled eggs. The final play of the evening, Listen to: Men and Women, instead took on a more intimate, voyeuristic subject. Writer Johannes Black’s focus was a man (played with stern charisma by Joe Edwards) listening in to phone conversations, living through other’s voices while he remained in apparent self-exile. Directing the show as well as composing it, Black made effective use of the stage to show a displacement of voices constantly surrounding the protagonist. The deliberately poetic language may have been off-putting to some, and the script could have left more of a narrative thread for the audience, but there is something to be said for a play that sets out to present a reality closer to the experience of the dream, with its resonating voices and stark lighting. The evening showed what makes the Festival compelling – the willingness on the part of the organisers to select pieces so purposefully different in their styles and tones, and which have an undimmed voice at their heart that want the opportunity to be heard.

Saturday’s show offered another bold range of tones and genres. Lewis Thomas’s The Covenanters touched upon belonging and personal history in a radically changing Scotland. A perhaps conventional set-up (a family deciding to sell off their land and home to American industrialists) was realised quite beautifully through naturalistic dialogue and humanising moments of wit. There were instances where the action briefly stagnated and didn’t quite produce the climax the narrative seemed to be leading to, but this is understandable given that it was just one scene from a longer piece. What set the play apart were the bookending monologues delivered by Thomas himself, enacting the voice of the patriarchal grandfather who has decided to sell the family home – we see him first as an old man, alone in a care home and reminiscing about his life (another set-up which thankfully avoided any saccharine, sentimentalised tropes), and then as a young man looking forwards with anticipation to what we already know will be a bitter end.

An audience member raised the themes of nostalgia and looking back to the past as a thread between the evening’s plays – but they struck me for how much of the backstory the writers refused to elaborate upon, glossing over unnecessary exposition to focus on the present situation their characters find themselves in. This was perhaps clearest in Pride, written by Denicia Bernard, which proved to be a triumphant and tragic end to the Festival. The setup of two homeless people looking through a window at a family Christmas meal – again a scenario which in the hands of a less able writer could seem hackneyed or even misjudged – led to a beautifully realised relationship between two friends. Bernard’s command of characterisation and speech allowed her to create two characters that were instantly likeable and flawed, As Bernard said in her interview, instead of being dictated by their pasts, the focus is their decision in the present moment. Special attention must be payed to the two leads, Saskia Ross and Eleanor Lind-Booton, who brought the care and detail to their roles one would expect of actors who have been playing the parts for years.

In fact, while the focus of the Festival is indeed to present the new works of writers, it is easy to forget everyone who worked hard to make the fourth year of the Festival a success. From the uniformly excellent casts to all the directors and crew who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, none of the scripts could have been brought to life without this essential collaboration. If there is one thing to take away from the Festival it is that student writing in Cambridge remains bold and daring – at times it can be rough around the edges, but it deserves occasions like this for unproven playwrights to practice at their craft and be given the feedback that is an essential part of the theatrical process.

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