Zara Hachemane sees the best original productions on London’s university scene
In 2013, I made my disastrous student drama debut in an adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which culminated in me forgetting my lines, loudly swearing in the middle of a monologue and downing a third of a bottle of brandy backstage during the second act. Funnily enough, my debut in student drama was also my final performance. Thankfully, the four final plays in competition at the London Student Drama Festival offered a rather more polished representation of student drama than my own lacklustre endeavours. After gaining victory in the two heats the previous week, the four finalists – LSE, Queen Mary, King’s and Royal Holloway – showcased their half an hour efforts at The Pleasance Theatre in an evening that served as a powerful reminder of the depth of young student talent across the capital.
Royal Holloway kicked things off with their sub-Beckettian two-hander, What Comes Next. Depicting a student and banker begrudgingly stuck in the waiting room of the afterlife together, it opened the evening’s proceedings in a ponderous manner by asking the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? With such a weighty theme, it would be easy to tip into pretentious territory but Marsay’s script deftly balanced its solemn subject with moments of genuine humour: Keiran Salmon’s stuffy Greg scored big laughs when he admitted the thing he regretted most about his death was missing the upcoming weekend’s half-marathon. His chemistry with Matty Sheen’s slacker student Adam was similarly delightful as the afterlife’s odd couple, as irritated by death as they were by each other. Their prodding and swiping eventually shifted to something deeper though, provoking profound reflections on life, death and regret. “There really is no hiding here,” they note, and the emotional nakedness of the characters was effectively mirrored in the play’s bare, minimalist set design. The stage was as empty as their lives had been, and ultimately, their deaths. “This is it,” Greg realised. Thankfully for us, though its protagonists may see the play’s proceedings as meaningless, What Comes Next consistently yielded rich insight for its audience in its ambivalent approach to mortality.
A mid-evening treat arrived when LSE took to the stage with their uproarious satire on consumerism, Convenience. Seizing on everyone’s innate aversion to door-to-door sellers, the play took place in a nightmarish alternate reality where salesmen can legally enter homes at will and refuse to leave until they have sold their product. It was the most unique premise of the night, and Scott Hunter’s hilarious script did well to balance both the big themes at play – capitalism, consumerism, consumption – with equally big laughs. Ben Chua gave the evening’s comic tour-de-force as Dan, a sort of psychotic version of a QVC salesman who regrets he cannot kill customers in the quest for a sale, but the play ultimately belonged to eventual Best Actor winner Nikhil Parmer; his depiction of the exasperated homeowner Robert provided the night’s most powerful moment in his defiant declaration of the importance of his humanity in a world where capitalism is king.
Queen Mary attempted to follow proceedings with their offering, Jellyfish. Depicting a late-night battle of wills, recrimination and regrets between a dying Grandfather and his resentful Grandson, the performance’s highpoint took place before it even began with the production’s award-winning set design team creating the musty living room of the play. The knitting ball of the late Grandmother, still lying next to the armchair where she used to sit, was a particularly moving touch, displaying a delicacy that the play sorely needed but often lacked.
Particularly irritating was the overblown sound production, which insisted each of the Grandfather’s (many) flashbacks and monologues be accompanied by a suitably dramatic soundtrack that seemed to betray a lack of faith in the actors to sufficiently communicate the moment to the audience. The script was a similarly mixed bag: it scored laughs when it went into bawdier territory, particularly when Grandfather began interrogating Grandson regarding what his girlfriend tastes like, but missed the mark when it attempted to take on loftier themes; as an examination of youth, age and death, Reece Connolly’s script was content to stick to trite aphorisms like “hope only works when you’re young”, and laboured points about the lack of ambition in millennials.
The acting was perfectly serviceable, but, like so much of this production, failed to inspire. Jack Ridley must be commended for performing the old age of Grandfather without drifting into caricature, although Sam Woodyatt’s Grandson sometimes seemed to struggle to give the material the emotional depth it demanded: his climactic outburst to Grandfather was meant to be the eruption of a lifetime of hatred but came across more like a particularly foul-mouthed tantrum.
Saving the best until last, the night’s closing piece was King’s academia-based comedy-drama, Meritocracy, winner of both the Special Mention prize for Direction and the Best Writing award. It was the case of a play that undoubtedly knew its audience: its jokes about undergraduate grading and double-spacing earned huge laughs in a theatre packed with students, yet while it may have relied on the old go-to’s of university-based comedy, it did so in a manner that never felt hackneyed. Who knew a play about plagiarism could be so much damn fun? Afsana Sayyed’s world-weary Dr Elizabeth Barton won particularly knowing laughter when she advised her bright-eyed student that “academia is not about being original; it’s about being a bit original with other people’s words.” The play energetically explored this statement, when Barton began publishing her student’s work under her own name to widespread acclaim. Sayyed’s performance, by turns restrained and then hilarious, anchored a play that was sometimes dizzying in its swift scene changes; her speech upon fraudulently winning the Nobel Prize managed to be both funny, repellent and surprisingly moving, not an easy thing to do. She was ably supported by the rest of the equally winning cast, although special mention must go to Rupert Sadler’s smug academic (and “New York Times Young Theorist to Watch”), Wade Hewitt, and George Collecott’s incompetent secretary; by the end of the play, his mere appearance onstage carrying his tea-tray was enough to send the audience into paroxysms of laughter. A crowd-pleasing closer and a play that ultimately celebrated the power and originality of young student minds, it offered a fitting conclusion to a night that saluted the promise of the city’s student drama.
In a year when the government are continuing to slash drama funding for young people, the London Student Drama Festival was a vital reminder of the importance of supporting young theatrical talent. It was a never less than an engaging evening, and a joyous celebration of the promise of the city’s student drama. Who knows, it may have even inspired me to make my own triumphant return to the stage.
Featured Image Credits: London Student Drama Festival