Red shoes, seaside views and pulling on the night club floor! That’s hotbed!

Whilst the massed ranks of Essex fled for a weekend of Latitude indulgence, I headed in the opposite direction.  The hottest weekend of the year and I’m to be found hanging around a dark studio theatre, which probably says more about me than I’d care to admit.  It’s Cambridge based Menagerie’s Hotbed 2013, a festival of new writing which for a few days has landed at Colchester Mercury (on route to London’s Soho Theatre).

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The extent of the enterprise is impressive.  Over the course of four days nine new works, several ‘guest’ shows and a sprinkling of works in progress are all delivered by a company of seven actors, four directors and one designer (Nicky Bunch who, is also currently designing Eastern Angles’ Dark Earth).   And I only got to see a fraction of it!

Jane-Upton-Swimming-e1365608782766My Hotbed journey started with a double dose of Jane Upton, a writer I’d not come across before (which is exactly the point of festivals).  The evening kicked off with Finding Nana, a tale of joy, sadness, rites of passage, dementia and powdered milk.  Crammed full of images and ideas that, though intensely personal, are universal enough to resonate deeply.  Finding Nana has real potential: an honest, touching one person show.

Upton’s tight, lyrical writing (but this time with a much harsher edge) was also on show in Swimming.  After five minutes, thanks to a public school girl character who I struggled to believe or warm to, I thought I’d hate it.  But the play creeps up on you, like the tide which forms such a central part of the story, and ultimately leaves you washed out and speechless.

“People say the sea makes you feel small. Not me. Give me a straw and I’d drink it all up.”

In Tony Casement’s taut and driving production, the play captures both the emptiness and futility for some of seasonal, seaside living as well as the despair at the heart of the central character, Jack.   It’s the journey the audience goes on in grasping the complexity of Jack (played by Jack Bence) which lies at the heart of the piece, as you slowly begin to understand a character who at first appears straight forwardly unpleasant. If you get the chance, catch the show as it briefly pops up at Soho.

If Swimming inhabited the territory of those fumbling, awkward moments before a relationship emerges Why Can’t We Live Together traced a relationships fall, through ‘intensely imagined moments of choice’.  It’s reminiscent of Pinter’s Betrayal (though played in chronological order) and I was also reminded, in its focus on particular moments of Roger McGough’s bittersweet love poem ‘Summer with Monika’.

“the endless students scuffing it up and then off they go with their lives”

steve wTwo Cambridge graduates return to the city of their studies at the start of the new millennium. Starting with a proposal, we end post split, travelling via a purchase, a prayer and several playtimes (which get increasingly less and less playful). As each clearly punctuated moment passes, another light in the relationship seems to go out. It’s often not so much the words – but the time inbetween where we see the disintegration. Jasmine Hyde is outstanding as the betrayed wife, her sideways looks communicating as much as Steve Waters’ sharply observed text.

In Paul Bourne’s production the staging echoes the writing.  Two separate boxes (his and hers) contain their life time belongings lovingly placed around the edges of the playing area.  Laptops, leaflets, estate agent particulars, items of clothing are all deliberately placed and then brought into the space as prompts for ‘moments’. By the end those same belongings are strewn across the stage as the pair struggle to make sense of what has gone before, order replaced by chaos as world events explode around them.  Most striking are the red high heeled shoes – clutched in proposal, violently kicked away in the despair and anger of separation.

Those very same shoes would appear again the following morning as a prop for an open rehearsal of Nicola Weronowska’s Hidden (Nicola wrote Peapickers for Eastern Angles).  Hidden explores one woman’s struggle to understand how to live with dyspraxia and takes us once again back to the start of the relationship.  Not this time in a seaside café, but to the mucky floor of a night club.  As the central character, Jess, scrambles around on the floor for her missing shoe she comes face to face with a man floored by having one too many.

‘If you think that actors and directors are paid to muck around then you are about to find out…it’s true’ . Tony Casement

Werenowska In the context of the rehearsal we didn’t hear much of the text, but what we did hear and see was a fascinating internal debate running through the rehearsal room.  Is this a straight two hander – or is there a third character? – Jess ‘B’ a physical manifestation of both what Jess would like to be and at the same time a teasingly dreadful reminder of what she isn’t?  It was genuinely fascinating to see the cast of three (two actors and a dancer) together with the writer and director grapple with the question.

After it was all done and dusted, I couldn’t help but reflect that those several thousand angry Latituders (stuck for seven hours at Colchester station thanks to one man’s actions on Friday) could have done an awful lot worse than hopping off and heading down to Hotbed.  A challenging, inspiring and ultimately refreshing weekend of new writing – topped off with cheese and beer.  What’s not to like!

For details of Hotbed at Soho Theatre see here.

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