33% London

Oval House Theatre, 14 – 24 January 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

For two weeks last year the Oval House turned over their entire building to work created by and for the young people of London. A year on, their second annual youth arts festival – a whole programme of events under the 33% London banner – is already well under way.

The theatre’s café bar is now home to a free exhibition of artwork by the students of Archbishop Tenison’s School, a nearby boys’ arts college. At the end of the festival’s first week, the venue is hosting the Right to the Heart conference on diversity and access in youth arts. And for four nights a week, every corner of the building fills with new dramatic writing by young Londoners, in Around the House and The Unfortunate Love of the British Empire. All the work on display both celebrates and interrogates the multicultural melting pot of modern London.

Around the House is the collective title for seven site-specific short plays: the work of Paines Plough and Channel Four’s seven Future Perfect writers. Tickets for this part of the event are scarce, limited by the number of spectators it’s possible to cram into the back toilets, and even then a certain amount of craning or crouching is required to find a decent sightline, but there isn’t time to get uncomfortable. These are neat vignettes that know when to wrap up; not one outstays its welcome.

Inevitably with such short pieces some old familiar twist endings crop up, and one or two seem uncertain or even resentful of the challenge of site-specific performance. Nick Payne’s Dad is staged in the Upstairs Theatre, a gloomy black box space, but set on a staircase in a family home during a wake; whereas Lydia Adetunji’s Hot and Laura Neal’s Stockroom, allocated notionally more challenging performance spaces on actual staircases, engage fully with their sites and are all the more dramatically effective for it.

But these pieces are essentially playwriting exercises for talented writers, so the dialogue takes the starring role. Some strident dramatic voices can be heard emerging, writing for the most part in a colourful vernacular inaccessible to the more mature generation of playwrights. There’s positivity to be found in the most unlikely places: the strongest comic writing is found in Dominic Mitchell’s Good People, in which two schoolgirls hide from a student gunman; and the ladies’ room is the setting for a touching exploration of the transformative power of romance, in Ali Muriel’s Ladies and Gentlemen.

The centrepiece event, The Unfortunate Love of the British Empire, is a play in four parts. In Epic Theatre style, it spans two centuries, from Elizabeth I’s reign to a student flat in 2009. Each scene comes with the full Aristotelian set of beginning, middle and end, like four full-length plays have each been crushed into a scene’s length, breaking some fairly significant bones in the process. Exposition is sometimes rushed and characters and relationships develop through a lifetime’s worth of emotion in a few short minutes. The sense is that playwrights Zephryn Taitte (who also performs) and Roy Alexander Weise are too attached to each premise to allow them to be subsumed into a coherent whole.

But the scenes are tied together by common themes; and if they represent the voice of London’s youth then something needs to be done, because they are dissatisfied to the point of despair.

First the Virgin Queen sacrifices love for the good of the Empire. Fast-forward to the 50s and a high-society mother drinks heavily and proclaims, of her grief over her half-caste husband’s death and her vilification in society over his ethnic background, “It never ends.” Raw sexual attraction and the love of their daughter aren’t enough for a mixed-race couple, whose violent arguments are portrayed as the inevitable result of their intolerance for each other’s cultures. Finally, a poet and Guyanese illegal immigrant, failed by British systems at every level, traces society’s problems back to immutable human envy and greed: the desire to take what others have simply because they have it, which hasn’t changed in the play’s entire 200-year timespan.

There’s a bleak pessimism in Zephryn Taitte and Roy Alexander Weise’s writing that suggests a complete lack of faith in the multiculturalism on which London prides itself. Yet the whole 33% London season is the result of young Londoners from every background working together, to write and perform and exhibit and debate. 33% London is a facilitator through which disillusioned young Londoners can take steps towards positive change, letting the powerful older generations know they won’t stand for things as they are.

Written by Lydia Adetunji (Hot), Steven Hevey (Untitled), Michael McLean (The Gofer), Dominic Mitchell (Good People), Ali Muriel (Ladies and Gentlemen), Laura Neal (Stockroom), Nick Payne (Dad), Zephryn Taitte and Roy Alexander Weise (The Unfortunate Love of the British Empire)

Crew includes Jorge Balça (director, Around the House), Nicholai Labarrie (director, Around the House/Unfortunate Love), Zephryn Taitte (co-director, Unfortunate Love), Victoria Johnstone (designer, Unfortunate Love) and Francis Watson (lighting technician, Unfortunate Love)

Cast includes Jodie Bloom, Elizabeth Francis, Anatole Gadsby, Adam Hipkin, Obi Iwumene, Dominic Powell, Chole Reader and Natasha Sparkes (Around the House); Jamela-Renee Calliste, Lorren Comert, Kieran Edwards, Emme Eudu, Stef O’Driscoll, Sarah Richards, Shavani Seth, Zephryn Taitte and Bevan Vincent (Unfortunate Love)

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