Review: Alchymy Festival 2018

There are so many good things to say about the Alchymy Festival that it’s hard to know where to begin. Alchymy is a new writing theatre festival held at the North Wall in Oxford, which is now in its second year. And whatever North Wall are doing, they’re doing it right. The festival showcased some truly exciting new talent across all three days.

Perhaps most impressive was the Catalyst showcase on the first night. It presented scenes from six different plays back-to-back, written and directed by participants on the Catalyst course — a free, two-week residency run by ArtsLab that works with theatre practitioners aged between 18-25. Sure, the writing was a little rough around the edges sometimes, but all the scenes were engrossing and astutely observed. 

I would love to see the rest of Walk Swiftly and with Purpose and Wood, by Siofra Dromgoole and Adam Foster respectively. Walk Swiftly follows four girls somewhere in the hinterland between teens and adulthood, exploring how they negotiate the transition and how their friendship is tested by their new identities. Dromgoole’s characters were honest and believable, managing to move beyond stereotype on a subject that seems to invite caricature. The scene presented was a mini melodrama all on its own, so I’d intrigued to know how the characters’ stories panned out. Wood, based around a group of actors devising a play about the porn industry, was easily the funniest script of the evening. Masterfully directed by Grace Duggan, the scene had the audience in hysterics. My only reservation was that the humour was sometimes quite meta — I’m not sure how well some of the jokes would translate for an audience not well acquainted with acting workshops, for example. Meanwhile Intravenous, by Nancy Netherwood, presented a father-son feud in an apocalyptic world. The dialogue between the two men was outstanding, beautifully crafted and persuasive. It was so good that it might not need the sci-fi scenario that it’s set in — it’s difficult to tell conclusively without the rest of the play, but in this scene the surrounding drama of a spreading bacterial infection detracted from the great writing at the heart of the story.

Managing to perform six characters in two hours is no mean feat, but the actors managed incredibly and were convincing in every scene. Alice Vilanculo, Philippa Hogg, Milly Oldfield, Tosin Thompson, and Lewis Doherty deserve especial mention for their performances not just in this showcase but across the festival, portraying an astonishing array of both tragic and comic characters. 

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For me, one of the festival highlights was E8, by Marika McKennell. Vilanculo shone playing Bailey in McKennell’s drama, set in a Pupil Referral Unit. Bailey is waiting for a decision that may change her life, and her character was both written and performed with conviction and nuance. The play was performed as a rehearsed reading here, but it’s easy to see why the North Wall have committed to a full future staging. The fluidity of the writing was only occasionally broken by some of the head teacher’s speeches, which sometimes felt like political monologues explaining particular bits of legislation. It’s a play that tackles systemic injustice, but it does this best through superbly written characters who will stay with me long after the festival has finished.

Another gem, completely different in tone, was I Promise Tomorrow I’ll Forget Where I Buried It, by Hal Coase. Described as a ‘monologue about the things we do to keep tomorrow away’ it traversed an enormous scope in its brief thirty minutes, exploring topics from the pressures of fame to the fear of doing something you can never take back. One of the most thought-provoking scenes tackled the use of individuals’ data in an imagined future, a particularly pertinent topic in light of the recent revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It’s an issue that is only going to get more important as people move more and more of their lives online. Coase presented a woman, Nina, who has had her voice and image used against her will for an advert, but is powerless to prevent it because she has inadvertently permitted a company to use her likeness by buying one of their products. Nina’s character was beautifully observed, and perfectly portrayed by Phoebe Hames whose acting made the whole show sparkle. 

Two plays that fared less well were Ding Dong and Rehearsing for Planet B. Ding Dong is a family drama set at a wedding full of misbehaving dads, pushy mums, and jealous siblings. The characters are well written but the plot unfolds predictably, and deals with the topics that it touches on at a relatively surface level. Rehearsing for Planet B is a post-apocalyptic drama, imaging what the world will be like if climate change continues unchecked. The premise is that the world has lost the ability to sleep and becomes hooked on “Cola”, a drink that allows people to sleep but erases their memories at the same time. However it was never explained why or how this came about, and the world-building and characterisation were not strong enough to sustain the premise as allegory. 

The festival closed with Cheer up, slug, a coming-of-age drama by Tamsin Daisy Rees. Following three teenagers preparing for their Duke of Edinburgh expedition, it managed to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It touches on broad political topics but never gets bogged down by them, and tackles difficult personal issues including rape with sensitivity and candour. At times it was unrelentingly intense, and might have benefitted from a few more minutes of comic dialogue (which Rees demonstrates she can do extremely well) to give balance and establish more of a relationship between the three. The backstory between the two girls, Alex and Bean, would have been particularly interesting to explore a little more — we’re told that they used to be close friends, but they appear to hate each other through the majority of the play and we only get glimpses of their previous relationship after crisis hits. Overall though this was a seriously impressive debut, and I will be looking out for more of Rees’ work in future.

One of the things that I loved most about the Alchymy Festival is that it wasn’t just about the plays. It was also about the people, the infrastructure that makes up the entirety of the theatre system. The shows were interspersed with panel discussions on topics ranging from the challenges of producing new plays, to what an ideal future theatre might look like. The Friday afternoon panels seemed to capture the heart of the Festival. They focused on the responsibilities that theatre practitioners have to their communities to produce shows that are relevant to them, and what proactive solutions there might be for increasing diversity in the theatre. In both regards, the Alchymy Festival seems to be doing admirably. The theatre was packed for every performance I went to, and the weekend gave a platform to a vast variety of voices on a huge range of issues. It gives emerging talents a space to experiment, to try something new, to get things wrong as well as right. Perhaps Alchymy has answered its own question — as future theatres go, this is pretty ideal.

Leah Broad

For more information about the North Wall and the Alchymy Festival, please visit their website.

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