Portsmouth Writer’s Hub – 7th Feb 2013

An interesting writer’s hub last night at the New Theatre Royal gave me plenty to think about. The night was one in which writers were able to get their pieces of work read and performed by actors on stage in the grand old Matcham theatre.

It was fascinating to see the different approaches of different writers. I should state from the beginning that the standard of writing was high and the vision of each writer very clear. These are personal responses and include my emotional engagement with the pieces.

“Tom’s Field” by Johanna Walker was intriguing from the opening, with an increasingly poignant “slow burn” building up as it went on. The story was of an older couple apparently on a camping holiday doing the inanities that an older couple who have retired and don’t really know what to do with their time do: crosswords, tea, gossip about the neighbour’s tent.  But underneath it was a rising note of tension to do with waiting for someone. When that someone arrived, it was their hostile daughter-in-law with their grandson.

It turned out that the son, Tom, had disappeared and that the daughter-in-law blamed the parents-in-law in some way. There was a moment when I did wonder whether the grandparents were culpable, but there was nothing in the text to support this, and the weight of the grandmother’s pleading to be allowed to see her grandson along with the clear exposition of the anguish they were in didn’t help the younger woman’s case. Others saw it differently, but since we weren’t given more information about the back story, it was left wide open

The dialogue in Tom’s Field was very real, and I engaged emotionally because I cared about those two old people and the boy, while the structuring of the scene made it an absolute gem.  The simplicity with which the central conflicts were presented and played out made it extremely strong indeed.

In Jeff Page‘s piece, “Flat Above Star Food And Wine”, telling of a relationship between two firebrand radicals and their older selves, there were some interesting interactions, especially to do with the interplay of power. However, this piece was for my taste so heavily laden with concepts that I couldn’t follow the line of narrative. My feeling was that the dialogue needed serious pruning and the central conflicts and drives needed to be laid out more clearly.  I also found it peculiar that what appeared to be wealthy middle class people, one of whom was an MP, were using “fucking” and “coppers” regularly in their language. It may have been that the actors were miscast for the roles given them, but it left me unconvinced and I feel I would need to read the text to really understand it.

Rachel Besser‘s “A Little Light Breathing” was powerful in a different way, and certainly caused most discussion among the group.  Besser had responded to the Jimmy Saville scandal with a piece about a 35-year-old woman returning to her public school in order to confront the headmistress with her experience of being molested when 15. Or, at least, that’s nearly what it was about. From the woman’s description, no such assault took place.

The woman described the teacher placing his hand on her clothed “chest” to aid her breathing, and this is where it fell apart for me. A quick check of the dictionary shows the chest to be any part of the thorax – from the neck down to the diaphragm. As soon as I heard these words, I immediately understood them as meaning that the hand had been placed either on the flat area above the breasts, or close to the diaphragm beneath the breasts – a perfectly natural place to put a hand when guiding breathing exercises. Indeed, I personally had done this with a male client to whom I was giving public speaking training only the night before.

No mention was made of touching the breast at any point during the play. No tweak, no grope. Nothing.  Just a hand on the “chest”, with clothes on. I remained confused why a 35-year-old who is a successful documentary maker should be revisiting this non-event, now. I also found equating such a minor event with the experience of a girl who was raped by her father problematic: conflating two very different experiences in this way undermined the woman’s credibility.

I was surprised how many people – especially younger people – seemed to think that a touch to the chest rather than the breast constituted a sexual assault. To me, again, this consensus is a symptom of the knots our society has tied itself up in over the matter of sexuality. In schools in which teachers are simply not allowed to touch children, not allowed to give them a supportive hug when they fall down or physically move them when they play up, we have a whole generation growing up unable to gauge what constitutes “normal” contact.

As it turned out, the teacher did have a history of sexual abuse in this story, but I could just as easily have seen exactly the same exchange on stage as the start of a story with the opposite message: the teacher is hunted down and subjected to vilification when he is innocent. I found the piece deeply disturbing not because it dealt with assault, but because it dealt with non-assault. To me, it highlighted the horror men experience daily trying to negotiate the media-led world (symbolised by the documentary maker) in which paranoia and over-reaction have become the norm.

It also showed how vague language and euphemism can really muddy the water. Perhaps the young woman meant her breast. But if she did, then she should have said it. I was at a loss to know what the fuss was about as the dialogue stood.

As you can tell from my responses, there was definitely something powerful in this work, and it certainly opened a can of worms for me. Matters of detail to one side, the writer had a strong eye for a conflict, with the headmistress continually blocking the younger woman’s  attempts to express what happened to her. Besser should be commended for tackling such a controversial topic even if the execution needs further work.

The night finished with two comic pieces by Lucy Bell, “Old Birds” and “Set Menu”. Both showcased Lucy’s uncanny knack for sparkling dialogue and her naturally comic turn of phrase.

The first, a story of two “Old Birds” at a spa talking about their sex lives and spending their money how they want was hilariously funny. I enjoyed them no end, and felt a kind of delight in their company and their horrifying obsessions – one of having sex with very young men and the other of  having her hymen surgically replaced to please the “old man”. It was an exposition of some of the more colourful extremes of our glorious, brash culture, and I delighted in its crassness.

“Set Menu” was also a beauty, showing the oppression of one woman by her husband and by social and religious mores.  At no point was this story lecturing, and it was stronger for it.

In all, a really fascinating night, showing writers at different stages of development, each with very different voices.  I was impressed by the work of all the writers. A lot of thought and much creativity went into the night. I’d be interested to see a production of the work of these writers, and will keep an eye out to see how it develops.

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