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Sunday 2nd December 2007

Event: International Playwriting Festival (IPF)
Producer: Evita Bier & Ted Craig
Venue: Warehouse Theatre
Address: Dingwall Road, Croydon CR0 2NF
Box Office: +44 (0)20 8680 4060
Dates: 24 - 25 November 2007
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Reviewed by Howard Loxton

Twelve plays in two days! This year I was only able to attend three of the four sessions when a mixture of work was presented ranging from ten-minute plays from the theatre's own Writers Workshop to shortened versions of the IPF prize-winners' plays and 'snap-shot' extracts from other of the 600 entries sent in this year which the judges considered of particular interest.

While it is fine to present a play written as a ten-minute exercise, it is very difficult to judge a full-length play from a tiny extract. However, you can get some idea of the playwright's skill in creating character and writing dialogue and potential producers can get some idea whether it is worth asking to see a script or more of the writer's work.

For writers there is the opportunity to see how their work plays when given a performance by a good professional cast. What you can't get is a sense of how well the play is shaped, unless the editing is done extremely skilfully. Indeed, such editing could have removed material that doesn't work or holds up the flow and cause problems later. It's an imperfect operation, but still one worth doing if it helps bring attention to new work and starts it off on the process towards a full production.

I felt the extracts were shorter this year than in the past but the producers assure me that I am wrong. Certainly there were fewer that were staged rather than simply read and that can make a big difference. In Brierley Thorpe's Barricading Eden, for instance, director Sarah Chew simply put her cast on a line of chairs for a simple reading. It got strong performances from Sheila Mitchell as an octogenarian who remembers shooting a German airman when she was twelve and Ian Sylvester as a lad emotionally incomplete without his deceased dog. (He tells us he "misses him farting on the bed" and wants to wake up "with him licking my face and his horrible meaty breath. I ain't nobody without him") but a couple of underpowered and largely inaudible actors and the lack of imagination in the presentation made little of this story about vandalism, arson and the redevelopment of an allotment site, despite Thorpe's ear for dialogue and her well-imagined characters

One short piece that really did work was Paul Sayer's tongue-in-cheek The Nativity which, with Jonathan Taylor's Joseph and Rhodo Ofori-Attah's Mary giving birth in an over-priced stable, worrying about whether they would be able to see a child whose father was a Holy Ghost and cheated out of Balthazar's gold, was delightful. If you can give birth with a script in your hand then surely you can meet on an allotment! Ten-minute pieces as effective as this (directed by Ariella Eshed) deserve further exposure. If no one else will bring back revue, then maybe the Warehouse should do it. I'm sure they can find singers, dancers and stand-ups who'd be happy to make up the rest of the bill.

Two of the most impressive plays this year were reactions to the war in Iraq.

Canto Per Fallujah by Francesco Niccolini, a presentation by ExtraCandoni from Italy, has a US soldier alone with an English-speaking Iraqi woman whose son he has just killed. It was sensitively performed by Fisun Burgess and William Meredith but almost impossible to perceive how effective it would be as a full-length play. I don't know whether it was the decision of the writer or director Simon Cox to combine the dialogue of the play with narrative from the original book from which the play developed but presumably it was the director who decided to have it read with the actors stationary on two stools. It was a way out of deciding how to put on stage a ruthless killing and a rape. Was this a single scene from the play or an edited version of a confrontation that continues throughout the piece? At least in this case the writer does not have to rely on this reduced exposure. Her play has already been filmed in documentary form in Italy, receives its stage presentation there next year and will also be produced at the National Theatre in Cairo.

The other Iraq-inspired work was Good People, a black comedy from Australia by Carolyn Burns given a lively production by Simon Phillips. Using a script carefully abbreviated to give the feeling of the whole play and staged with real vitality, it presented us with a US soldier returning to his home on sick leave with army interrogators arriving at the house to check up on him (or hunt him down?). Add in a patriot father who is a Desert Storm vet and a doting mother and auntie in an all-American home and watch apple-pie values triumph as they fight for kith and kin against the state.

Why did this soldier's baby sister die? Out in the Middle East he's found out about others exposed to weapons using depleted uranium which have similar deformities. Is this why his father gets sick so often? It is hard-hitting and funny, although without the humour it might, perhaps, seem a little too simplistic. But dramatists are supposed to create engaging drama not complex political arguments. Since the director is the playwright's husband and Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, I should think Good People has a fair chance of being done back home, but I hope that we will also see more of it here.

Clocked by Neil J Flynn was a mystifying Pinteresque piece with possible homosexual undertones involving an artist, his new assistant and his lodger. Nigel Anthony, Phillip York and Joe Fredericks seemed well cast as the three men but the 30 minutes allowed Nila Milic's production were not enough to even guess at what was going on, let alone judge whether there was a full-length entertainment there.

A fifteen-minute extract from Stephen Jackson's Ouija showed us some interesting characters: an over-the-top theatrical landlady and an unsuccessful salesman with a glass eye and prosthetic limbs who wants to marry a girl who lost her legs in an unfortunate magic show accident.

A third politically-inspired play also made an impact. Golgia by Maria Marmara was the contribution of Theatre Ena from Cyprus and is set on the island soon after the Turkish invasion and the division into two. A Greek girl has only just escaped from captivity in the north where she has seen her grandfather and father killed before her eyes and been locked up for fifteen months during which time she was sexually abused by one of their Turkish murderers. Now she is pregnant with his child. George Savvides' production consisted of just a few episodes of the story but gave clear evidence of the way in which the play presents reactions to the idea of bearing the enemy's child, a child who is also one's own, and the mixed reactions of other Greek Cypriots to refugees. This is a very dark piece, sensitively played, especially by Elena Pavli as Golgia (an alternative Cypriot name for Aphrodite) and Paul Constantine as Petros.

With 600 international entries for a prize that gives neither prize money nor guarantee of commercial production, there are clearly plenty of writers out there wanting to be heard and, as this selection of best entries showed, quite a few of them are well worth hearing. I hope we will be hearing more of some of these plays.

Howard Loxton 2007

Nigel Anthony
Fiona Battisby
Sarah Berger
Fisun Burgess
Claire Chate
Lucy Christofi Christy
Raymond Coker
Paul Constantine
Lucinda Cowden
Joe Fredericks
Tanveer Ghan
Becky John
Clare Lawrence
Simon Lee Phillips
Angus McEwan
William Meredith
Sheila Mitchell
John Morraitis
Devon Myers
Patrick Myles
Nathan North
Rhodo Ofori-Attah
Ivanno Jeremiah Okwok
Elena Pavli
Jack Pryor
Sam Rankin
Nathan Roberts
Jaime Robertson
Heather Rome
Christine St John
Anna Savva
Gary Sharkey
Stephen Stepheney
Jane Summut
Zwai Swan
Ian Sylvester
Jonathan Taylor
Kenny Thompson
Trevor A Toussaint
Andrew C Wadsworth
Josephine Welcome
Liam Webber
Philip York
Alex Broun
Carolyn Burns
Mary Fengar Cail
Neil J Flynn
Stephen Jackson
Maria Marmara
Francesco Niccolini
Janice Okoh
Sara Pascoe
Paul Sayer
Brierley Thorpe
William Wood
Eric Abrefa
Sarah Chew
Simon Cox
Ariella Eshed
Souad Faress
Andrea Gillie
Nila Milic
Gordon Murray
Simon Phillips
George Savvides
Jan Waters
Graham Watts
Lighting Designer: Peter Harrison
Composer: Rick Lloyd (Island of No Tomorrows)
Composer: Nikos Savvides

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