Julian Eaves takes a look at Prelude showcasing new writers at the Tristan Bates Theatre
Tristan Bates Theatre,
18th June 2018
Joel Fisher did a very sensible thing in inviting Lexi Clare's showcase for new musical theatre writing into the Tristan Bates Theatre: having seen it Above the Arts recently, he knew it would benefit from the more generous space – and infinitely better acoustics – of his house. And so it proved: it was sheer delight to hear these new voices in a room that did them full justice.
As for the performing, so also for the writing: there was a lot of young talent here, drawn from the capital's leading drama schools. Now, we hear much about the difficulties of gaining access to such training; the prohibitive costs and lack of subsidies available mean, we are told again and again, that there is increasingly a restricted demographic able to follow that pathway. Not only that, when it comes to originating new work, people on the whole write about what they themselves know, or at least what they understand from their own personal experience. When the social, cultural and literary backgrounds of the writers are so similar, this inevitably leads to a certain homogeneity of outlook, interests and beliefs. And it was no surprise, therefore, to find this very similarity reflected quite strongly in the product on offer here.
Of course, this is not only true of this forum, but of the entire industry training framework. Producers throughout performance media have for years been drawing our attention to the difficulties they find in breaking out from an ever narrower social – and ethnic – range of new talent, at the very time that the country is in fact becoming more, and not less, socially and ethnically diverse. In a capital city with the greatest social diversity in the land, the drama schools concentrated here are looking increasingly out of touch with the very society they strive to serve.
And so it was here. We heard many tales derived from the particular passions and concerns of this social group. Mainly, these could be summed up as: ‘Will I be as popular, successful and wealthy as I want to be?' Sitting in on this event was like watching a two-hour-long Selfie. But where was the sense that there is a huge world out there, that just happens to be further away than arm's length? It seemed frustratingly elusive.
One writer who seemed best placed to break out of this suffocating grip of conformity was Harry Style, who distinguished himself as having a sense of humour and the capacity to make us laugh: this was immensely refreshing when taken in the midst of so many writers who were apparently set upon taking themselves as seriously as possible. His work is still very ‘undergraduate' in tone, and headed to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it will amuse young, student-like audiences in a hurry. But the craftsmanship of his writing – both of lyrics and music – is memorable, while he processes different styles in his search towards an individual voice. Perhaps most pleasingly, he eschewed the nearly omnipresent pseudo-American accents adopted by a depressing majority of the acts on offer.
The trouble with Brits trying to sound like Americans is that very, very few of them do it with any success. Spotlight describes this half-ability as ‘General American', as if the sound of the voice could be compared with General Motors, or General Electric. Well, I'm so sorry to tell you this, but no such accent exists, except in the haphazard vocalisations of British trained performers: US accents are all very particular. Faking them just won't do. You have to get them right. And if you can't, don't try. And when we were offered Elizabethan characters adopting this nonsensical sound, it beggared belief. I mean, … why?
Similarly, as for the musical palette on offer here, it played safe and obeyed the conventions of currently successful works written by established – celebrated – creatives in the West End and (especially) Broadway. Only once, in fact, did my ears prick up and detect something quite fresh and unusual, and that moment – sadly – did not arrive until the closing bars of the final number, by Thomas Ryalls, which suddenly, and most unexpectedly, threw some deliciously rich and complex chords at us, placed in striking juxtaposition to one another. This effect stuck out like a sore thumb in an evening dominated by lengthy repetitions of well-worn musical progressions and tropes. One yearned for these young talents to trust to their own gifts and cut themselves free of other people's styles and mannerisms.
We shall have to see which of them, in future, do that.