This is the fifth time I have reviewed the performance of the three finalists of The Kenneth Branagh Awards for new drama writing. This is an almost unique situation as we are in the middle of a global pandemic, as we were last year. As I said last year that the Windsor Fringe have managed to put this event on is beyond complement – it is a truly fantastic achievement, and everyone involved should feel proud.
The three plays were performed in front of a non-existent audience which in the case of the first two plays was amazing. The last play was obviously a somewhat rushed affair and so is not in contention.
The first play was INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT written by J.B. Heaps from New York and I think is the first non UK play to make the shortlist in the time I have been reviewing. The lead actor, David Hepple as Brooks McGill, was superb. The entire play is a monologue with interjections by various characters which are recalled by his memory. Two actors, Shaun Stone and Charlotte Moore, portray this array of characters brilliantly.
The play is set in a bar into which McGill has been locked. We see him get up with a sore jaw after being laid out by the ex-boxer barman. He begins a long description of how he lost support from all his colleagues as his writing career never quite took off. His boss berates him for hopeless copy after his ex-wife berates him for writing a dreadful book. More disasters follow him and then the editor fires him. Reality kicks in when he tries to talk to his daughter, but his ex-wife hangs up on him. He gives a great description of a piece he should have written and then says, “the collective works of everything Brooks McGill said he was going to write – but didn’t.” The piece ends with McGill drinking himself senseless or maybe – to death.
A brilliant depiction of a man’s descent into oblivion which of course is essentially the result of great writing by J. B .Heaps and classy direction by Ben de Wynter. The set is a classily designed bar which allows the other actors to change costume behind it. The direction maintains a continuous flow from either one character to another or visits to the locked door or a telephone. McGill occasionally addresses the audience directly or interacts with a buzzing bee, full on to the audience. Sound and lighting are clearly to be commended.
Charlotte Moore is so effective as the many different characters she portrays, cheesed off ex-wife, superior barmaid and as a slightly lost young lady reporter. Shaun Stone is likewise superb as the various barman, boss and a “famous editor”. There is something very clever about building a play around a single character, but it only works if the supporting characters have great precision and detail in their performances.
This is a beautifully written play which is directed with great subtlety by Ben de Wynter. There is something rather clever about positioning the actors in front of a very realistic bar. This allows the actor to play against the potential for drinking which becomes ever stronger as the play progresses – a brilliant final moment as McGill drinks from the piled-up array of glasses.
The next play, THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN IN AMERICA, is a fascinating depiction around the turn of the last century, of a woman Mary played by Veronica Quilligan who unwittingly infects people with typhoid as she is an asymptomatic carrier. Mary is played as a very proud woman who has no respect for professional people, especially those like George Soper, played by Ed Browning, who express their deep disrespect for people like Mary. The point of the whole play is established in the first scene. The play then proceeds with the unravelling of Mary’s life as she ends up incarcerated on an island for much of the rest of her life.
That said the other purpose of the play is to portray the attitude of men towards women in general at the turn of the century. This is done through the belittling of a female doctor, Josephine played by Isabella Inchbald. Whilst Mary is just belligerent, Josephine is more sophisticated in her depiction of women’s struggle to be taken seriously at that time. By the end of the section between the doctor and the civil servant we basically despise George Soper.
When Mary returns to the stage, we are on her side despite her almost violent expression of disdain for the whole process. There is perhaps an interesting parallel with our own time where we have had to deal with a disease we did not understand. The relationship between the three characters is beautifully captured as the scene draws to a close.
It is perhaps at this point that both the writing and direction deserve mention. The play, written by Andrew Turner puts us in the position of women at that time and allows us to consider our own views on the difficulties they faced. The director, Peter Kavanagh, has understood the journey that the audience needs to make. By the end of the second scene he has us firmly on the side of Mary through his subtle use of the doctor to focus our antagonism on Mr Soper.
A further point on the portrayal of this brilliant play is the simple black set with just a table and chairs variously arranged for each scene. The position of the characters is beautifully arranged to always have the focus where it needs to be. Music and lighting also play an important part in shifting the focus from scene to scene.
The last scene is a poignant statement from Mary herself of what her life has been like since she became “Typhoid Mary”. She wears a red coat and a hat which somehow gives a fitting end. It is beautifully directed and acted and reminds us of all that has preceded this final moment of the play.
One final point about the two supporting actors. The positioning of Mary as a woman caught in the ignorance of her time is established because of the relationship between the characters played by Isabella Inchbald and Ed Browning. Ed maintains a supercilious manner whilst Isabella shows an understanding which allows is shift our attitude towards Mary. The play has been brilliantly directed and acted as well as having a simple but very effective set and music.
The final play, THE SPERM BANK written by John Wolfson, also from New York, and directed latterly by Paula Chitty. This was not the fault of anyone, but the cast only had one rehearsal, before filming due many problems:
- A heart attack,
- change of director at the last minute,
- long covid,
- changes of cast,
- apart from the girl having just come out of hospital, in pain, and saying if we could get her a wheelchair, she could do it
I have tried watching it a second time and it is even more distracting than the first. I therefore do not feel it would be fair on anyone involved to make a commentary. Certainly the cast and director are to be commended for the work they have put in but ultimately this competition is about the writing which has been commented on elsewhere.
That returns us to the two other plays and for the first time I feel it would be unfair to choose a winner as they are both brilliantly acted and directed. The two leads in each play, David Hepple and Veronica Quilligan, are to be commended on amazing performances and the other actors were without exception superb. Both directors, Ben de Wynter and Peter Kavanagh should feel proud that they have produced plays that are outstanding.
Frank Kaye. SARDINES MAGAZINE
6 November 2021