The British Final landed in Belfast this year, organised by the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals at the MAC Theatre, and the quality of the four entrants was extremely high.
Each of the two performance nights comprised two plays and Friday evening began with the winner of the Northern Ireland competition, Theatre 3 Newtownabbey with ‘A little something for the ducks’ by Jean Lennox Toddie. This was a two hander wherein two ‘strangers’ meet by a duck pond and a connection grows between them. The gentle humour of the dialogue belied the darker purposes of world weary Samuel against Irma’s gradually emerging understanding of his suicidal state. This play was unusual as it was the only play in this final (and indeed the English Final) to have a unity of time, place, character and situation and the two actors combined well to provide a very effective autumnal entertainment.
This was followed by the winners of the Scottish final, Kirkintilloch Players, with ‘The beaches of St Valery’ by Stuart Hepburn which, unlike the first play’s bijou everyday, was an epic tale of the plight of the 51st Highland Division, ordered to stay on and fight while the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ occurred for other members of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. Based on real people, the writing of the play was hugely emotive, committed and challenging; the playing of the three actors was of the highest order, impressively evocative of the times and situation with some genuinely moving moments.
The second session on Saturday, began with the English winner, Total Arts Community Theatre’s performance of ‘A sudden burst of rain by Sami Ibrahim. This was a fine masterclass in fusion of design, direction and acting. The piece is so full of complementary ideas that it cannot fail to impress. It looked good, sounded good and left a lasting impression as the diaphanously thin veil of narrative revealed the desperation of displaced people and the migrant experience. This was the third time that I had seen this particular production and the power remained as high as the first time.
The second production of the evening was the Welsh winner, The Unknown Theatre Company’s performance of ‘A super happy story (about feeling super sad)’ by Jon Brittain and Matthew Floyd Jones. This was another contrast of styles as a cabaret form was introduced with dominant direct address to the audience, as we shared the developing despair and desolation of the generation Z central character. However, while the material was dark, the performance skills were dazzling from the four young actors, one of whom provided on stage keyboard support for atmosphere and the frequent songs. This was a beguiling end to the competition, engaging with multiple emotions and delivered with exuberance and real skill.
So, which of these four impressive performances would achieve The Harold de Walden Trophy as the winner of the British Final Festival?
The adjudicator was Imelda McDonagh ADA, currently president of Ireland’s Association of Drama Adjudicators, so we were in good hands and she was warm, rigorous and generous in her appraisal of the plays. My only quibble would be attributing the style of 7.84 to the Welsh entry, when it was clearly more relevant to the political content of the Scottish entry, the Welsh play having much more in common with Belgrade Theatre and the Theatre in Education style. There would be little argument over her choice as winning play and the English entry by Total Arts Community Theatre performance of ‘A sudden violent burst of rain’ was duly announced winner.
This is the fourth time that TACT have won this event, three times in the last five competitions, and it is worth considering how they are so consistent. There is a total theatre approach to their work that is evident from the first time each play appears on the festival circuit, design is well considered, robust and supportive of the host play’s theme and narrative, direction is dynamic and explorative while the acting is well rehearsed, and actors clearly own the roles that they play. So, it is all down to rigorous preparation, organisation of theatrical ideas and a commitment to overall quality that has combined to mould the secure performances that have bred success in the past. But who will win next year when it will be the Scottish Community Drama Association’s turn to stage the finals, in Perth.
Alan M Hayes