COMING ON STRONG: A festival of plays by young writers
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1
Opened 18 October, 1994

The showcase season of this year's 21st Royal Court/Marks & Spencer Young Writers' Festival consists for the first time of two alternating double-bills rather than a single clutch of plays. The writers, aged between 15 and 22, all display a hearteneing degree of promise, and one of the works on display is a little gem in its own right.

Corner Boys by 16-year-old Derry lad Kevin Coyle is a sometimes acute teen view of teen. Although set in Derry, it is concerned less with a particular city than a particular generation, the nothing-in-particular youngsters whose late spokesman Kurt Cobain adorns one of their T-shirts. The series of vignettes draws much laughter of recognition as Dave and Barry awkwardly work up to asking Angela and Kerry out for a big date at a café or down at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and also as they try in vain to deal with the neighbourhood psycho Chopper. When Coyle occasionally tries to be flash or profound his script rattles, but when the piece sticks closer to home it maintains a satisfactory chunkiness.

Essex Girls by Rebecca Prichard is a fairly blatant comic-tragic contrast. In the first act, a trio of would-be suss babes hang out, smoke and talk sex in the girls' toilets of a comprehensive school; in the second, depressive Kim effectively abandoned by the drunkard father of her son is visited in her high-rise by her best friend, who tries desperately to snap her out of her lassitude for even a short while. This scene goes beyond simply subverting the considerable humour of what has gone before, and gives the play the air of an exercise in technique. Nevertheless, Prichard will certainly learn to structure her dramas less obtrusively (this is her first play), and already has a sensitivity for character and a keen ear for dialogue.

Roxana Silbert's direction is alert to the moods of the plays, and creates an evening of solidity rather than sensation. The most impressive performance on the bill is that of Siobhan Hayes as Kim in Essex Girls, who capably conveys her character's mood of grey rather than black depression.

Co-director Jane Collins has the better deal in terms of direction. Fifteen-year-old Hayley Daniel's Looking For Home kicks off the second bill, portraying the arguments of a divorced mother and her 13-year-old daughter with an often uncomfortable rawness. Sam and her mother both say exactly what they feel, partly because theirs is not a relationship that observes polite conventions and partly because Daniel has yet to acquire the skill of coating her characters with such a veneer. Yet the glimpses into Sam's childish fantasies, and the fact that they complement rather than supplant her grip on reality, are affecting, and Sarah-Jane Potts is quite remarkable in her professional stage debut in the role.

The jewel in the festival's crown, though, is The Nocky by Michael Wynne, aged 21. The Kelly family celebrate their grandmother's 70th birthday on a Birkenhead estate amid a culture of unemployment and constant theft (as the story begins, son Joseph himself knocks off the family video, later joking that hot VCRs are virtually an alternative currency). The play is an impressive blend of hilarity and poignancy, grit and sardonicism.

Wynne's dialogue is frequently so marvellous that I was reduced simply to noting down my favourite lines, such as "I hope he's cut down on those Pot Noodles he smelt like he had an alien up his arse last time." This is kitchen-sink drama in the "everything but the..." sense. Young Steven, a witness to his brother's burglary, lurks under a grey cloud of petulance while sister Lizzie agonises about the morality of the "dodgy money" she earns at night another strong performance from Potts, matched by Elizabeth Berrington as the irrepressible aunt to whom she unburdens herself and Ma Kelly keeps the family together in best Boswellian fashion. Wynne somehow manages to put a triple twist into an almost wordless ending, played out against the bathetic strains of Dionne Warwick.

The world is likely to hear from most of these writers again, and in Michael Wynne's case this particular corner of the world can hardly wait.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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