STAG’s New Works is a yearly festival with six performances of completely new and original texts written by students. It runs for three days, each night hosting one 20-minute and one 50-minute play. This year, the festival took place in Cottiers Theatre from the 26th until the 28th of February. The plays performed included: Take Away (Charlotte Smith), Clara: The Story of a Chemist (Niko Single-Liertz), Goblin Market (Lily Kuenzler), The Search for the Hooded Phantom (Annie Saxberg), Heroes (Rebecca Russel) and Ah Dinnae Ken (Maddie Beautyman). Unfortunately, I was able to visit just the second day of the festival, thus only seeing Goblin Market and The Search for the Hooded Phantom.
The Goblin Market impressed me as a very physically challenging theatre piece based on Christina Rosetti’s poem about sisterhood and sexual awakening. It is a great concept that I would love to see explored more often. Nevertheless, I am somewhat unsure whether an adaptation of a poem through physical theatre is the right choice for New Works, which aims to expose new student writings. The festival is a rare chance to have your early writings staged and is a golden opportunity for testing your craft. I am afraid that expanding the concept too widely would make the already tiny pool of opportunities for young playwrights even smaller.
On the other hand, it is definitely a performance of which STAG should be very proud. Iona Bremner, Ellie Janes, Kristupas Liubinas, Alice Nottage and Tom Lindsay were beautifully in sync, performing acrobatics that balanced on the fine edge of leaving you in awe, and making you feel rather uncomfortable due to risk they impose and violence they depict. With a simple stage design and costumes, but a powerful storyline, for me, this is what student theatre should aim to do on regular basis. It is great practice for performers, as they cannot hide behind any of the riches of more commercial theatre.
My only real problem was the sound design: the sound was too loud to hear the actors. I was sitting in the first row, but most of the lines were undistinguishable. This cannot really be blamed on the actors, whose voices naturally lose strength during the piece, but should have been noticed and solved by the director, musical director, and tech team. Finally, in the rape scene, the sounds coming from the victim (Ellie Janes) were not in sync with the action, since it was pre-recorded. This largely took away from the otherwise intense viewing experience. It would have been a lot more gripping if performed live, possibly with a mic to emphasize the discomfort and pain. Though even with these minor considerations, I would love for The Goblin Market to have more show nights: it is a work that should be seen by everyone interested in student theatre.
Unlike the first performance of the night, The Search for the Hooded Phantom was pure fun. It tells the story of actors and crew members doing an episode of their long-standing radio drama about detective Chester MacArthur and his allies searching for ‘the Hooded Phantom’. The play shows what goes on in the studios both in terms of production and interpersonal relationships, while keeping everything in a light tone.
The play’s stars are definitely Annie Bird and Matthew Wilson, who manage to make the audience laugh from the first minute to the last. Hanni Shinton and Nick Kelly are also well-cast for their respective roles, but the length of the play works against them. There is not enough plot or comic situations to keep The Search for the Hooded Phantom going for 50 minutes – so if the actors lack their own little quirks with which they can charm the viewer, their presence on the stage soon becomes frankly uninteresting. This comedy could successfully be cut to a 25 or 30-minute show and have the audience laughing throughout.
Aside from the length, the biggest problems with the production were the relatively uninteresting plot of the radio show, which does make for a large part of the plot, and the all-too-obvious identity of the Phantom. For most part quiet sound-guy Sonic McGee, played by Josh Read, shows no change in character once he is revealed to be the Phantom, and in ‘reality’ an ‘evil mastermind’ who left three actors unemployed to create his own TV show. Although The Search for the Hooded Phantom did get quite a few laughs, a lot more could be done to improve the overall show and help it reach its full potential.
All in all, the 27th of February was a good night to see New Works, which presented some interesting pieces. While I might suggest some improvements, I understand the very point of the festival is not to present perfect works, but to be a place to try out and learn the craft. Both the Goblin Market and The Search for the Hooded Phantom teams can be very proud of themselves.