The HighTide of new theatre?
Harp-playing, incest and 7/7: a festival in deepest, darkest Suffolk showcases the work of yoof-ish British playwrights.
My aim was noble. HighTide is Britain’s first new writing theatre festival to focus exclusively on young artists. The inaugural festival took place during the Easter weekend and I went along, in search of the creative edge of our nation’s youth. But I rarely venture outside of zone two on the London Underground and Halesworth, Suffolk, where HighTide took place, is, I gather, outside Greater London.
So I duped a friend into driving me and we eventually made it to Halesworth and the New Cut theatre. The first play we saw, Lyre by Megan Walsh, was pretty avant-garde stuff. If I’d read the programme, I would have known that it was about an uncomfortably close brother and sister. As it was, some guy refuses to play the harp and this girl takes her clothes off. It was only when he voiced his fear of mutant babies that I realised there was some incest going on. Later, something weird happens in a swimming pool, then the bloke smashes the harp and again refuses to have sex with his sister.
‘This is gibberish’, muttered my friend. ‘How dare you?’ I replied. ‘This is new writing, this is cutting-edge. Just try to blend in.’ But he wouldn’t listen and the mood of those around us was turning ugly. I couldn’t blame them; they didn’t know that my friend is non-violent. No wonder. We had come in entirely the wrong uniform. The theme was cardigans, skinny jeans and pointy shoes. They all had great hair. I should never have come in a tracksuit or brought a sidekick. But how could I have known there was a dress code? ‘A real journalist would have known’, a voice in my head warned, ‘and brought a pen’.
At least we’d had all the controversy boxes ticked – and in a single show. Next up we had a rehearsed reading of Assembly, a comedy about a group of young people trying to form a political party. It started out much like a Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch, but quickly found its own feet. Tom Basden’s script was funny and well observed. A great turn from Chris Harper hit all the best lines out of the park. The rest of the cast was strong despite the best efforts of one relentless ham, Geoff Breton, who wore a very foolish hat. The play was a sitcom waiting to happen and, as long as it remains unafraid to be smart, I hope it does.
Alas, we had forgotten to bring any produce to barter and so, at the break, we failed to negotiate any lunch from the locals. Luckily Ned & Sharon, written by Sam Holcroft, was good enough to distract me from my hunger. It had sexual content so I was confident that this was cutting-edge stuff. Set in a care home, it showed the development of a romance between a troubled teenage girl and a reformed young man. It was lit up by a strong performance from Charlie Covell, who brought the outbursts of temper and the awkward vulnerability of her character to life. You could tell something was working when, as she flung a cassette tape violently into one of the other characters, she produced gasps from the audience. It was great to see a play with real characters and a rather moving story at its heart. It ended with some uncomfortable dry humping on a chair, but I guess that was the point.
So I’d had my faith in our nation’s yoof restored. And by Pericles Snowdon’s VI/VII, we finally had an ethnic minority on stage, which I’m sure was exciting for everybody. But we were back to watching a couple discussing whether or not they’d had sex with each other. They turn on the television and hear about the London bombings and then have sex with each other anyway. I see what’s going on here, I thought. She’s a posh English girl, he’s an Asian. They wind each other up, but they can still hump out their differences. Then she asks him to leave and tells him she gave him a sexually-transmitted disease. Sadly this is probably also a sitcom waiting to happen. Pericles Snowdon does have a great name, but I’m not sure he was providing a biting social commentary here.
My friend explained it was called VI/VII because that was the day before 7/7. ‘Meh’, I said. Having said that, the script did have some good moments and Rik Ahmed was clearly a good actor, though unfortunately shackled to this rehearsed reading format.
So what’s the scorecard? I love the idea behind the festival. A group of bright young things founded it and it is a great showcase for new talent, from writers to directors and actors. The main focus is the plays, but there were also talks, short film screenings, poetry readings and music events. I could have stayed for more but I could also have spent the ticket money for two more plays on two hundred Wham bars. I chose Wham bars. I am also incapable of sitting still for more than four hours. The two conditions may not be unrelated.
The HighTide festival will be a yearly event. I look forward to it growing bigger and better. It has huge potential. But be warned, the pub in the village does not serve lattes. Sadly I witnessed some other patrons of the arts having to find this out the hard way.
John Dennen is an intern at the Institute of Ideas.
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