Review: STAG’s New Works Festival 2019

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Credit: Julia Hegele

Julia Hegele
Deputy Culture Editor – Theatre

The highs and lows of Student Theatre at Glasgow’s spring festival

New Works is the festival I look forward to most during STAG’s whopping 24 show season. It gives writers a chance to create 20 or 50-minute pieces of theatre, the latter of which vies for a chance to be showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe. The shows can be anything, allowing maximum creativity and ingenuity from those involved with University of Glasgow’s most prolific student theatre company. This review will break down the six productions of this year’s festival, starting with the 20-minute productions and then analyzing the 50-minute pieces and their potential as STAG’s summer sojourn to the Fringe. Let’s get started!

Disclaimer: Yes, I am a member of the board of Student Theatre at Glasgow, but I can assure all readers that I have had no creative connection or input on any of the productions. I’ve taken explicit measures to disengage from any part of the festival and viewed these productions with little to no previous context. The board hat is off, the critic hat is on, let’s rock and roll…

The 20 Minutes

Romance Peninsula
The first show of the festival, a Love Island spoof with a murderous twist, is a perfect testimony to the old saying: go big or go home. The jokes fell just a bit flat, the characters were almost fleshed out, the narrative was nearly engaging. Despite charming acting and very well-intended direction, the show didn’t seem to spark anything with the audience. There was a missing energy that reduced laughs to chuckles of confusion and made the action feel disconnected from the performance. The actors were trying their best with an iffy script, you could see the glimmers of potential in their performances, and observation which made the show’s execution all the more confusing. It’s a shame, a show with a meme based fight and murder in the name of the Occult should have been the guilty pleasure of the festival, but the lapse in energy felt during Romance Peninsula was too big to discount.

Strings
The dark horse of the festival, Strings is a piece of physical theatre that blends comedy and humanistic tragedy in a seamless and gripping look at the beauty of love, loss, and acceptance… can you tell that this one was my favorite? I didn’t know what to expect from this piece, but I can confidently say it was a much needed breath of fresh air in the festival and checks all the boxes I want from student theatre. The narrative was simple: Death, a simple spector who feeds her dog, heads to the shops, and holds the lives of all humanity in her hands loses one of her Styxian strings to a young girl, keen on preserving the life of her ailing mother. The string is eventually returned and the trio must move on in an exploration of grief, connection, and duty. This unexpected charmer was exquisitely nuanced, simplistic and yet heartfelt. The piece was semi-devised and played brilliantly upon the talents of all three actors involved while still evoking a purposeful sense of direction. A special shout out to the delicate original compositions of Callum Ward who’s music lifted the piece from exceptional to perfect. There were laughs, tears, and truly unparalleled moments of beauty in this innovative yet deeply relatable piece; Strings proves that a show doesn’t need words to be utterly exceptional.

The Counting Game
The final 20 minute, this semi-poetic exploration into trauma, violence, and family was a return to the expected in terms of the student theatre drama. That is in NO way to say that it was faulted, on the contrary, the show’s writing was highly nuanced and presented a fascinating vignettic testimonial to the complexities and poeticisms of connectivity and loss. It is only to remind student practitioners of the gravity of their subject matter and the weight of representing those afflicted by trauma, which The Counting Game did with only a slight bias towards the stereotypical. The direction was emotionally driven and tried admirably to bridge the gaps that the poetic episodes presented in a complex narrative. However all other notes regarding this play fall flat against the tour de force performances of the actors portraying the suffering sisters. The three displayed a well fostered, if typical connectivity that was shattered by the trauma of losing their parents, but it was as individuals where the production truly shone. Isadora Corfield and Beth Leishman were particularly astounding, with the latter completely commanding the stage through her moments of heart-wrenchingly intense delivery. The talent of the women on stage out paced the writing and direction and was at times held back by poetic traps and breaks of narrative, but for several perfect moments all three elements fused to create an utterly astounding piece of impactful, haunting, and truly beautiful theatre.

The 50 Minutes

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Toaster
The slow burn of the festival, Toaster is a topical dramedy a little left of the kitchen sink. The titular appliance represents the tension and complexities regarding children for a young working couple who, through the course of the performance, wear down their patience and their relationship through the very act of living with the expectations of modern society. Immediately, it has to be pointed out how damaging the venue was for this particular piece, the entire time I was treated to an exceptional view of one face and the back of the other’s head, this show could soar if both astounding actors could be viewed reacting to one another.

Back to the production itself, I have to be honest. It took me two days from seeing the performance to truly understand how much I really appreciated the piece. The action, direction, and writing were all hazy… but not in a bad way? I could feel drudgery of the actor’s ‘normal’ situations, the forced niceties and pain of prolonged small talk: what I at first perceived as poor pacing was in fact a highly realist approach to what it means to be in a stagnating relationship. Rather than gloss over this with additional action, the script embellished the dull, emphasized moments of stillness, and effectively entrapped the audience in the same tar pit of time that the characters were stuck in: an honestly genius technique that was incredibly well executed by the writer and directors. The acting was heart rending as you would expect with the subject matter in question, but it is the otherworldly chemistry between the couple that truly sets Toaster apart in terms of character development. Moments of eye contact or light physical connection spoke decibels louder than moments of vicious yelling, proving that sometimes less is more. All in all, what could appear to be a simple narrative piece on the surface was in fact a deep exploration into the mundanity of modern relationships that yielded a glimpse of gold. It deserves more attention, refinement and perhaps another run, but it fell behind the more flashy productions of the festival.

I Will Speak Up
A theatrical interpretation of the pain and conflict that comes with reporting of a sexual assault will always be polarizing, and I Will Speak Up is no exception. The beginning skyrocketed my expectations, the actors came out and scattered copies of newspapers, (including our own, what a class shout out) detailing exposes of sexual assault while a myriad of voices rattled off statistics and headlines regarding the epidemic of violence and the subsequent revival of women’s power and autonomy. I was ready for an installation, a new engaging piece of conversation to prompt thought and conversation, but exquisite direction fell prey to trite writing and the show unfortunately fell into the cadence of an afterschool special. The exposition was explicit from the get go, reading very much like an informational pamphlet. However what could be a clunky look at a sensitive topic was softened and salvaged by some truly exceptional performances, particularly those that explored the complexities within the dynamics of siblings, lovers, and most vitally, perpetrator and defendant. The actors glowed with potential, but were forced to recite lines that felt more at place in an anti-harassment video campaign, detracting from the truth and raw power of the subject matter that could have (and should have) been handled with a deeply evocative and transformational sense of responsibility. Instead the script rattled through buzzwords and typical narrative that, if anything, served to desensitize it’s audience even further, creating an Everest of numbness that the direction and acting was somehow meant to summit. However the direction superseded the writing in the final scene, sandwiching the rather slow moving self-flagellation of the story within the two truly devastating scenes of powerful action that began and ended the performance. I Will Speak Up’s story is reflective of its name: blunt, pointed, but unfortunately, equally as non-ingenuitive and not the best that STAG can produce.

Trips and Falls
One would think that three pieces of Scotland-centric family comedies would be the limit for STAG, perhaps the genre would have to lose some of its charm or gain some sort of fault… and yet the second Trips and Falls started, one could tell that this would be the gem of the festival. The final show garnered the first full bodied laughs of the season and immediately set out at a jaunty pace to steal the hearts of its audience. The plot is simple: two daughters steal the urn of their grandmother’s ashes to scatter on the hills of Arran, their estranged parents follow with the local police woman and her pesky ward in tow. However the relationships were so thoroughly forged, the action so impeccably choreographed, and the momentum of the story so well nuanced that the audience was treated to not only a performance, but what seemed to be a glimpse into a secret little universe of acceptance and adventure that I’m sure we all wanted to stay in as the lights dimmed. To be sure, there were some faults; dips in action, moments of obvious line confusion, and sequences when the actors ran from side to side so many times I practically caught whiplash. But the utter sweetness of the play made any fault seem premeditated, scrappy and engaging, a cheeky aside to an audience who was brought in on the action and gleefully caught up in the mad dash across the glens and lochs. The combination of witty wordsmithing and emotionally impactful performances is what makes Trips and Falls so special, but it is the inherent charm and lovableness that will, in my opinion, earn this show a place in STAG’s repertoire of hits.