Chapel Street, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

On Chapel Street, “every week it’s shit”.

Same people, same bars, same drinks. Or so we’re told by Joe and Kirsty, both out on a Friday night and each with their own reasons to seek oblivion. Through these two characters, Luke Barnes’ viciously funny and quietly devastating two-hander sketches out a searing, booze-stained portrait of the Pro-Plus generation, grabbing at their next energy kick while putting off tomorrow.

In a culture that seems determined to paint its youth as violent rioters and benefit-sponging lost causes, Barnes and his characters are paradoxically both embodying and kicking out against those stereotypes. There are shots, kebabs and smashed glass, but there are also concealed depths peeking through the fake-tan facades. Kirsty, it transpires, has ambitions to go to university and would rather go on holiday to Paris than to Kavos; Joe remains unemployed not through a desire to dodge work, but due to a dread of wasting his life in a soulless office.

Such fragments of personality are revealed through overlapping monologues spoken into microphones at opposite sides of the stage, an initially static set-up by director Cheryl Gallacher that gradually unravels into a frenetic reflection of the characters’ escalating intoxication. Performers Cary Crankson and Ria Zmitrowicz weave and stumble around the small space, making convincing and disarming drunks, yet tempering the humour with a poignant strain of vulnerability. The laughs, of which there are many, have a habit of souring in the mouth.

It is a piece that feels very much of the now, offering grim reality but few solutions. Barnes’ lyrical yet gritty language crystallises the brief euphoria and crashing despair of a whole swathe of young people emerging into a world that seems not to want them, with references to useless master’s degrees and the lie of an Olympic “legacy” that delivers very little opportunity. In a telling touch, we are told that the local church has been converted into a bar – home of the new religion. As Joe and Kirsty argue, with the way things are, you “might as well just get fucked”.

Photo: Jassy Earl

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Bitch Boxer, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Every fighter has a reason.

That’s the thinking behind this new show written and performed by Charlotte Josephine, taking a particularly timely dive into the world of female boxing. Chloe has wanted to fight ever since a family betrayal fractured her world, but in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics – the first Games in which women can compete in boxing – two events once again shift the ground beneath her, tripping her footwork.

With a rough sort of poetry, pounded out to the rhythm of punches, Josephine offers us a glimpse into Chloe’s chalk-outlined world. This is more about the individual at its heart than the sport in which she competes, but boxing forms a constant background drumbeat and a language through which to understand life. For Chloe, romance is a winding “sucker-punch of love”, an emotion, like grief, that she can only understand in terms of a knockout blow. Emotion, in this male-dominated world, feels like a weakness.

Beneath the fighting mentality that permeates Chloe’s character, however, there is something surprisingly tender and charming about this piece. Much of that charm radiates from Josephine herself, who somehow makes an activity inherently reliant on two parties – red corner and blue corner – work as a solo show. Hopping from toe to toe and pacing restlessly around the space, she rarely loses the coiled physicality of the boxer, but she also melts into moments of sudden, startling softness; reading a note from boyfriend Jamie, or smiling at a memory.

The other surprise of the show is its humour. From miming deadpan to Eminem, to a gag about Tesco that will never let you read the slogan “every little helps” in quite the same way again, the piece packs as many laughs as it does punches. Ultimately Bitch Boxer is, like the odd affection inspired by real boxing champion Nicola Adams, a reminder of the very human side of a sport often characterised by aggression. For all that the fighting thrills, it is the moment when a closed fist unfurls into an open hand that is the most compelling.

Photo: Jassy Earl

How to write a prize-winning play

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Opportunities for budding playwrights are now more plentiful than ever, but how do you make your play stand out from the rest? Catherine Love shares playwriting tips from the winner and runners-up of last year’s Papatango New Writing Competition…

Get inspired

You’ve decided that you’re going to write a play – what now? Dawn King, who won thePapatango New Writing Competition with her play Foxfinder, admits that “once you’ve learnt your craft, having an idea is the hardest bit”. But the worst thing you can do is just stare at a blank Word document waiting for that light bulb moment.

“The main thing is that if you’re trying to have an idea it’s actually quite hard to have one,” says King, “so if I’m trying to have an idea I tend to do something else.” Try taking a break and getting out of the house; you’re far more likely to find inspiration away from the computer screen.

Let your characters drive the plot 

Plenty of advice has been written about plotting plays, but it is best to let the plot be guided by your own characters and ideas rather than by a set of textbook rules. Competition runner-up Matt Morrison prefers to think of a play’s structure “in terms of patterns and permutations”. He explains that one of the best ways to move the plot forward is to make your characters interact with one another in different combinations and scenarios. “A small amount of plotting will actually get you quite a long way.”

Nail the dialogue 

It may sound obvious, but one of the central elements of any play is the words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Well-written dialogue should drive the action and develop your protagonists. Although writing dialogue involves much more than just replicating the way that people speak, Dawn suggests that listening to real speech is a good start. Matt, meanwhile, stresses that making your characters say what’s on their mind is the biggest mistake you can make, adding that “language is a force field to stop characters getting to the truth.”

Know your characters

Your characters are the heart of your play and you should know them better than your bosom buddies. Papatango runner-up Carol Vine believes that it’s “fundamental as a playwright to know what the character wants”. She goes on to explain that the desires of your characters are what keep your play moving forward: “as long as somebody wants something, then the play [and] the characters are active”. Matt agrees that the motivations and decisions of the characters are key. “The most important thing is to show characters making choices,” he advises. “You say, here’s a character, here’s their dilemma – which way are they going to jump?”

Keep trying 

Carol entered her play Rigor Mortis into several different playwriting competitionsbefore it impressed the Papatango judges and emphasises that the judging process is inevitably subjective. “Competitions can be a wonderful platform if you win,” she says, “but if you don’t, given that there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of submissions, it certainly doesn’t mean your play is awful. You have to have guts and champion your own work, as there will be times when no one else will.”

Finally, don’t be discouraged if your play fails to win the first prize or competition you enter. As proved by Carol’s experience, persistence pays off. And most importantly, in the words of competition winner Dawn King, “be tenacious”.

Photo: Garry Lake

Matthew Dunster

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Director, playwright and actor Matthew Dunster is best known as the director of Bruntwood Playwriting Competition winner Mogadishu, the National Theatre’s Love the Sinner and The Globe’s Doctor Faustus, and he is currently directing The Maddening Rain (pictured below) at Soho Theatre. He talks to Catherine Love about juggling disciplines and how he fell in love with theatre…

When did you decide you wanted to work in theatre?

I think I knew from the moment I got on stage – I know it sounds a bit romantic. I was always in and out of trouble for one thing or another when I was at school and it actually got quite messy. Then a very clever teacher asked me to be in Kes and I got to play the bully, so I didn’t feel too exposed. I just remember looking down at my foot when I was on stage one night, I was looking down and sort of twisting my foot on the stage, and all the other kids were just stood still. Then I thought, “I’m good at this”. That was it really, that moment. I just wanted to do it because I thought I’d found something that I was good at.

You’re known for acting and writing as well as for directing. Which came first?

I suppose the acting – I trained as an actor – but I’d always written little bits of plays when I was at school and college. Actually, when I was at college I wrote a play and entered it for a competition at Contact Theatre in Manchester. It won and the prize was a professional production, so my first proper gig was as a writer, but I really came out of college as an actor and that was what I pursued.

I try, as much as I can afford to, to go where the most interesting work is. It’s like the three disciplines are runners on a track and different runners are ahead at different times.

How do you think that the three different disciplines feed into one another?

I particularly hope that the experience of directing might make me a better actor. I’m constantly asking my actors to be simple and do less, not to overcomplicate things, so the few times that I’ve acted over the last few years I hope that I’ve simplified my approach to acting.

Do you direct your own plays?

I’ve got a show of mine on at the Almeida which I’m not going to direct, so that’s going to be really interesting for me. I had to get my confidence back as a writer before I felt that I could pass my plays over to other directors. I used to prefer directing my own work, but I think that when you’re writing for yourself you’re a little bit careful. It’s hard to know if you take risks and if you’ve got the objectivity to keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. The play I’ve written for the Almeida, Children’s Children, is the biggest and most unwieldy play and certainly the most political play that I’ve written, so it was important that I got somebody else to make sure it’s guided home safely.

Your latest show, The Maddening Rain, comments on the recent banking crisis. How important do you think it is for theatre to respond to current events?

I don’t think it’s crucial, but I think that it always happens. Whenever you’re working on a play, you always feel there’s something in it that reflects what’s going on in our current world. But there’s an added value with this play in that it sets out to take on a subject that is right at the forefront of all our discussions at the moment.

Do you have any tips for aspiring directors, actors and writers?

I would just say do all three and be a doer. Try to find a way of making sure you’re always doing, because a lot of writers, actors and directors spend the majority of their time in a state of unemployment. It’s so hard to crack it, but the only way to get good is to just keep doing it.