The Frights: the debut Alphabetti needed

Promtional image: remains of a bed in a ruined roomWith so much resting a good inaugural performance at Alphabetti theatre, the stakes could not be higher for The Frights. And does the job, with a play that’s intelligent, complex and – dare I say it? – thought-provoking.

With a successful crowdfunder and launch out of the way for Alphabetti Theatre, attention now turns to their first in-house production at their new theatre, The Frights. It’s directed by Ali Pritchard, who somehow managed to find the time to do this on top of actually building the venue, although it looks like he had a lot of help from the very much hands-on writer Louise Taylor. It’s not quite Alphabetti’s début – they did an Edinburgh Fringe show as Teeth in Eggcups and they’ve done a few in-house plays at their old home of the Dog and Parrot – but it was still the début that mattered. Because no matter how well you open a venue, no matter how nice the quirks such as the chairs being on sale from a local furniture store, people are going to want something to show for it. Fail to impress with the first play, and the future after first season would look shaky.

So, it must have been quite a fraught business for Alphabetti, and quite a fraught business for me too. After all of the energy I spent supporting the setup of this venue, it would have put me in a very awkward position had the first show failed to impress. But I needn’t have worried. It’s a good inaugural play, and bodes well if this is how they mean to go on.

Anyway, enough of that, on to the story. The Frights is set in the aftermath of a kidnapping. Hanny (Christina Berryman Dawson) is an aid worker who goes to the most dangerous of warzones and put other people’s lives ahead of of her own safety. On her latest stint, her luck ran out, she was kidnapped, and only freed after a harrowing ordeal. Except that, in reality, it was a lot less harrowing than one would believe – it was quite boring for a kidnapping: mostly four men arguing over what to do with her. But with the truth not a good enough story for a nosy journalist, Hanny sold an exaggerated story to stop prying into the rest of her charity that needs its secrecy to run.

There are flashbacks to the kidnapping and earlier events, but the play itself takes place in a bank, where Hanny intends to pay her ill-gotten payment from the journalist the charity who – she presumes – must have paid some sort of ransom. She is freshly-reunited to boyfriend Luke (James Hedley), who loves her but can’t share her devotion to the greater good, and wishes she’d stop risking her life like this. There is an early row with Kieran (Jacob Anderson) over who gets the free seat, and later his wife Tash (Sally Collett) who seems to want to gawp at this celebrity. But Kieran and Tash are also there to make a major financial transaction, and – as it turns out – the reason why they’re here is also quite desperate.

If I had to describe this play in one word, I could consider intelligent or complex, but I’d have to settle on “thought-provoking”. I use that term with the greatest reluctance, because this is currently one of the most over-used terms in theatre. Virtually every thespian tries to get their play described as thought-provoking regardless of whether it actually is. But this time, I genuinely cannot think of a better description for the play. So so many questions are raised by the play, but the play doesn’t try to give answers. I assume this was deliberate, because it gets you thinking about a lot of difficult questions. When you risk your life for the greater good, is it fair on the loved ones you leave behind? What is more important: the people in the direst of circumstances elsewhere in the world, or people on your own doorstep who have their own troubles? And how far should you so – which promises should you break, whose trust should you betray – to save the life of someone you love?

The only niggling issue I found was with the staging. Instead of using their stage, the chairs were rearranged around a central space in the floor, to achieve – to good effect – an audience uncomfortably close on the action. Unfortunately, with a lighting rig optimised for an end-stage configuration, it didn’t quite light up the actors properly, with the audience on the far end getting the worst of it. I gather Ali was aware of this issue and tried to find ways to minimise this, but the setup of the lighting rig is something to think about for future productions. The pace of the play was slightly on the slow side – nowhere close to failing the “get on with it” test, but I sometimes find myself waiting for the next plot development – but that’s okay, because with Alphabetti already eyeing up taking this to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it could do with being a little shorter, it shouldn’t be too difficult to shave off 10 minutes or so.

But niggles aside, at the time when Alphabetti had such a high stake resting on good début, they can definitely be pleased with how this has gone. It’s fair to say The Frights isn’t the most adventurous play on the fringe scene – there are bolder plays at festival fringes – but when a play has so much attention and you can’t afford to risk a dud, it’s a sensible balance between originality and a safe bet. So it’s a good start, and a god start Alphabetti needed, and a second season beyond July is definitely a step closer now.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the north-east, I’ve been seeing a bit of self-produced new writing at Saltburn Drama Festival. I review very few new plays at amateur drama festivals, not because I think amateurs can’t do good original plays (of course they can), but because it’s difficult to identify who’s got potential. Most plays come from newbies who are liable to commit one or more ten common beginners’ mistakes. In drama festivals such as this, it’s usually one of two mistakes: either padding out a play to fill up 55 minutes, or characters doing implausible things to meet the requirement of the plot. So the strongest play I say wasn’t an original one, it was Saltburn 53’s Sue Pearce directing Under Milk Wood (which, credit where it’s due, was an excellent production).

But the play I want to pick out from this is Dying as an Art from Middlesbrough Little Theatre. This is a mini-biopic of Sylvia Plath, with a heavy emphasis on her early suicide attempts at college, her marriage to Loverat poet Ted Hughes, and – ultimately – the affair of his that drove her to suicide. Unlike The Frights, writer/director David Spark had a much tougher job ahead of him. When you’re in receipt of an Arts Council grant and you can afford to hire professional actors, you can be reasonably confident they’ll do your play justice. In most plays of this nature at an amateur drama festival, however, you get next to no support and it’s an achievement to produce anything at all.

It’s by no means a perfect play, but then, very few plays to drama festivals are. They are a good opportunity for novices to see their work on stage in front of and audience to see what works and what doesn’t (and a far better technique to develop your writing than endlessly submitting scripts to be binned without feedback). It’s largely up to the writer to judge this for himself, so I’m not going to give a detailed list of plus and minus points, but I can offer a few pointers. It had a suitably dark tone, the episodic format was ideal, and it avoided dragging down the pace with lengthy blackouts (a frequent pitfall of episodic plays).

What I felt could have been stronger was the role of the six actors. One basic discipline for playwriting is to only include characters in the play if they a function to the story. In this case, all six characters did, and other minor characters were sensibly doubled into these parts. But – if you do include a character in a play, look for opportunities to make the most of the character. Ruth Beuscher, the psychiatrist who cared for Sylvia in her college days, mostly serves a function of a narrator, which is fine – but this could have been stronger had Ruth told the story in the order she found things out, and how it felt when she heard the news. We needed the character of David Wevill in this play, seeing as it was his wife, Assia, who started an affair with Hughes, but I’d had quite liked to have seen more about his reaction to this. I could imagine him, a superfan of Hughes, being in naive denial over what his wife’s doing.

The most effective character, however, was clearly Sylvia 2, the inner voice of Sylvia who keeps knocking her down – and everyone I spoke to shared this view. But it would have been even better if more had been made of her. She appears in a few stand-alone scene only when Sylvia is alone, but why not have her hanging around when she’s talking to Ted or Assia? She could drop in cutting remarks such as “Can you see the way he’s looking at her?”

So a good start from David Spark. A long way to go to catch up with Louise Taylor, but this is how a lot of writers start off. So the lesson from this week is that, good though it is for new writing theatres to support a lucky few, that is not the only place for new writing. The other place is grass roots root theatre such as Alphabetti and drama festival, where hard work and dedication does the job instead. Good work to both, and keep at it.

The Frights have two final performances scheduled, at Jabberwocky Market on the 28th March, and ARC Stockton on the 15th April.

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