New Writing: by Jane McCarthy (Epilogue) and Arnold Thomas Fanning (Shafted)

New Writing at The New Theatre is a week long initiative of new plays by emerging writers. In what promises to mark an on-going commitment to staging new work, the programme features short plays by Jane McCarthy and Arnold Thomas Fanning.

In McCarthy’s Epilogue, Henry (Harrington) wakes in the waiting room between life and death, where a presiding lawyer (McDonough) introduces him to significant people in his life, presumably for one last time. With more than a nod to A Christmas Carol, Henry is forced to reckon with his dark deeds, repressed memories, and personal disappointments. He comes face to face with family and friends, including himself as a child (Norton). At this point it emerges that throughout his youth he wanted to be a writer, and somewhere along the line, it all went horribly, horribly wrong, and he ended up working in business.

While the setting for McCarthy’s play is evocative, it almost inevitably produces easy sentiment by offering a space in which all things can finally be understood. In effect, the only tension staged here is regret, which is less affecting when there is no opportunity for change, or even interaction with real characters. All that is left for Henry to do is walk through a mysterious door at the back of the set, which he is predictably, and repeatedly, reluctant to do. In the end, the greatest surprise is that somebody from the audience doesn’t hop up and give him a helping push.

Overall, the performances are sound, and Harrington does his best with the material, although the concept feels strained, and for a so-called new writer, disappointingly old.

Shafted, by contrast, pivots on a more interesting dilemma. Outside a Broadway theatre in New York, Jack O’Donnell (also called Jack Malley in the programme, played by Keane) is basking in the success of his play’s run during intermission. He is joined by Henry “Head” (Patterson), an old college friend who has dropped by to claim copyright, as you do. Back in the day, the boys discussed ideas for plays, but only O’Donnell ever wrote them down. In his defence, Henry claims that he could never document his ideas in this way, because of his dyslexia. Nonetheless, he maintains that he is co-author of the current production, and is set on getting due recognition. The action rapidly shifts from cheeky banter to physical violence when O’Donnell fears that Henry will destroy his reputation.

The writing in this piece is quick and quirky, and the concept of a discussion over authorship is both novel and thought provoking. When Henry challenges Jack to an arm wrestling competition to settle their differences, and suggests writing a play about the subject, you can’t help thinking that Fanning might actually do service to this topic too. On the downside, in this offering the murderous conclusion is so obvious from the outset that it is hard to take all the intermittent dialogue as anything but filling.
Nonetheless, the performances here are strong, with both actors successfully managing the rapid escalation of tension.

The stage for both plays is sparsely dressed, and apart from some essential items of furniture, little attention is given to production values. Interestingly, both pieces explore an anxiety around writing, which may well have something to do with the fears of a fledgling playwright: in Epilogue, the protagonist wishes he left business and devoted his life to being a writer, and in Shafted, the fear and messy consequences of plagiarism takes centre stage.

In theory, a week of new writing seems like the perfect response to a pre-fringe, recession-compounded lull. Hand over the stage to new writers, and let them fill the auditorium with their families and friends. In many ways this is good business, and I’m sure the artists are not complaining. However, the production does little to convince us that new writing should automatically be “celebrated” as the programme note suggests. Rather, what seems more necessary - the evidence of which is missing here - is that emerging talent is nurtured and refined over a sustained period of time before it is exposed to the public.
  • Review
  • Theatre

New Writing: by Jane McCarthy (Epilogue) and Arnold Thomas Fanning (Shafted)

25 - 29 August, 2009

Produced by The New Theatre
In The New Theatre

Written and directed by Jane McCarthy
With: Robert Harrington, Dylan McDonough, Rua O’Donnachu, Diane Jennings, Philip Norton
By Arnold Thomas Fanning
Directed by Simon Hubbard
With: Henry Patterson and Andrew Keane
Lighting by Shane Fitzmaurice
Make-up: Sharon Minnock