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Watermill - Raising Voices

29th to 31st March 2008.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

This is the fourth time that the Watermill have done their admirable Raising Voices initiative, where they solicit plays from the public and whittle them down to a small number which are given rehearsed readings in the Watermill.

This year’s chosen plays were One Plus Infinity by Jimmy Brown, The Road to Port of Barry by Christopher J Orton and Robert Gould, Planting David by Laura Ellen Major and Nearer to Shakespeare by Jane Brough. I saw the first and last of these.

One Plus Infinity is about two cancer sufferers, one (Isla Rose) with dyslexia and the other (Jack) with Asperger’s syndrome. It sounds like a pretty depressing subject, but it turned out to be a fascinating, and often funny, exploration of the development of an unlikely relationship between two people. When they meet for the first time at the cancer clinic, they are antagonistic to each other but over time a closeness develops. Because of her dyslexia, Isla Rose was told as a child that she was stupid, and came to believe it. Jack is a PhD student at Cambridge and believes himself to be a genius, but is only too well aware of his social problems. When Isla Rose asks him, “What does it feel like, being clever?” he replies, “Alone”.

The play jumps backwards and forwards in time; a fashionable artifice, but for me it added nothing but confusion. There were very strong performances from Holly Berry as Isla and Olly Hawes as Jack; the final scenes were very moving.

The play was very well received by the Watermill audience. I felt it was too long – maybe as much as 20 minutes could be pruned from it, particularly in the first act, where explanations of infinity had me drifting off. Director Eve Leigh’s decision to stage it in two fixed chairs was a brave one, but the strength of the material and the acting overcame any problems this might have caused.

Nearer to Shakespeare was a bit of an oddity. Set in a university, it had the makings of a sitcom, but without the com. Hiding beneath the rather superficial story (getting married for a bet? Huh?) were more interesting themes about family relationships and the personal life of mousey Louise Grayson (a very good performance from Verity Hewlett). Adam Kotz was impressive too as the other main character, Conrad Milner. The play would have been improved by reducing the comedy, which didn’t really work, and building on the more serious themes.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Spotlight on new writers

Raising Voices, at The Watermill, from Monday, March 29 to Wednesday, March 31

Following the success of the previous Raising Voices, The Watermill launched another search for new writers for the stage. Forty-seven entries were received and the standard was higher than ever.

Four plays were chosen to be performed as a rehearsed reading by professional actors over three evenings. Each of the writers worked with the director and actors, meeting on the day of the show at 10am and then performing in the evening - quite a daunting task and all credit to the cast and directors for bringing such an accomplished 'voice' to the writers' work. I managed to see two of the longer pieces that were very different in both style and content.

Jimmy Brown's One Plus Infinity was an intriguing play. Young singer Isla (Holly Berry) is having a crisis in her life; she is dyslexic and has just been diagnosed as having melanoma. She meets fellow sufferer Jack (Oily Hawes) at the Rosemberg Clinic. He also suffers from Asperger's syndrome and is obsessed by numbers and routines. He is a brilliant student at Trinity College in Cambridge. Isla asks him: "What brings you here?" "The train" he replies.

There was much comedy in this uplifting play Their friendship grows as they undergo chemotherapy. Brown's witty script moves backwards in time. As a child, Isla was late to learn to talk - in fact she was late at everything, whereas Jack started university at 16. They are two opposites; she is stupid and he is a genius. We learn of their backgrounds, ambitions, they challenge each other about the three things that they must do before they die and hope that their test results are clear.

This is a play about love based on personal experiences. It explores mortality without being over-sentimental and is emotionally moving and honest. Eve Leigh's simple direction emphasised the restless nature of the characters. It would work exceedingly well as a radio play.

Set in a former polytechnic that has now become a new redbrick university, Jane Brough's Nearer to Shakespeare, directed by Derek Bond, is a beautifully-observed slice of campus life, revealing an absorbing window into academic life. Brough's characters are an eclectic mix of professionals. Dr Caroline Reid (Lizzie Sigrist) is pregnant. Adam Kotz played the local randy bachelor Dr Conrad Milner who is having a mid-life crisis and has decided to finally settle down and marry Louise (Verity Hewlett). She is prim and proper and predictable, loves classical concerts and chapel and has a cat called Shakespeare. She is the boss of 23-year-old Kelly (Holly Berry).

Life in the senior common room revolves around the coffee machine and the gossip is about the group's sexual relationships which produced some hilarious events. Paul Kissaun played both the stalwart Rev John Watson and Stewart Reid, since the competition only allowed for six actors to perform. Carrie Jones completed this talented team as Dr Elizabeth Jordan.

The plot is complex, with many twists and turns as their lives intertwine. One of the themes that runs throughout the play is about women who make a conscious decision to remain single and have dominant fathers.

This charming, sharp-witted play would certainly benefit from a full staging - producers take note. The Watermill should be congratulated on promoting new writing and giving the authors a voice on the stage.