It’s the joy that wins out in the second week of the Directors Festival. It’s to be found in Hull and Newport, five-a-side football teams, and doughnut shops. It’s love and acceptance that shines strongest, delivered with fizzing lines and a filthy cackle.
No one delivers that fuzzy feeling quite like Tom Wells. From Stuff to The Kitchen Sink to his assortment of Lyric Panto’s he knows exactly how to tackle sensitive subjects with an entertainer’s eye. In Jumpers for Goalposts (*****) we follow the five aside team of Barely Athletic across their season in a local gay league. As heavy defeats turn to 1 and then 3 points, we see the quintet come to terms with grief, finding one-twos through a spark, learning to accept each other as teammates, as family. It may be deliberately sentimental with an ending too neat, but like a Richard Curtis flick, though you can see what it’s doing you can’t help but fall for its charms anyway. In Robbie McDonnell’s convincing changing room set, director Becks Granger ekes out every line of comedy, every nuance dug out and sent scuttling into the world. If young, hungry graduates can’t always convey the disappointments and burdens that life can drop on you, they are great companions for an hour. Evie Hargreaves is all brash bluster as team coach Viv kicked out of the lesbian team for her abrasive style and trying to support her brother-in-law through their collective bereavement. As the token ‘straight’ Peter Burley brings dim-witted kindness, Josh Penrose and Ajani Cabey have a touching romance. Yet it’s Max Guest’s Geoff, prone to sleeping with the opposition but always with a smile etched on his face, who lights up the stage with guitar in hand. Whether pinging out the Smiths, Go West, or the Kop anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, the songs match with joyful form and leave its audience rising to its feet.
How My Light is Spent (****) Alan Harris’ Bruntwood prize commended play is clearly a popular choice as a graduating work, it’s the second time I’ve seen it run as part of the director’s festival. That’s not surprising, Harris’ play for a duo but made up of a multitude of voices, has the collage tone of a contemporary Under Milk Wood with a strange, ethereal beauty tucked below its laughs and its struggles. This is a community at sea metaphorically, of young(ish) people lost in towns that time forgot. 34-year-old Jimmy is disappearing, his zero-hour contract at the doughnut shop terminated, his footprint on the world barely sketched in. His only connection holding him to the world is his nine-minute minimum calls with phone-sex worker Kitty, hoping to earn enough money to fund a degree, falling into a relationship with her landlord over snooker. Harris’s play is both a love story and social deconstruction, Anna Sophia-Tutton and Bill Caple astounding as the two lost souls gradually come together, while Tobias Millard’s production hurdles on laughter for the second deserved standing ovation of the day.
Mike Bartlett is laying claim to be the most prolific playwright in Britain. His work surprises and surpasses. His form constantly mirrors and challenges the masters. This is why Bull (***) is so surprising in that it doesn’t contain any twist, any third act reversal. Instead in a three-way battle where only two jobs will remain, a ganging up by two to exclude the third just builds and builds until complete annihilation is the only endpoint. Ben Nash’s production kicks off in too high a gear, the early micro-aggressions already containing too much venom, too much sting. Some of the gas is let out long before its climax. Yet Joséphine-Fransilja Brookman and Tom Mordell are viperish as the two antagonists, using privilege and politics to secure their place. In the face of constant sniping; over his suit, over a mark on his face, on his comprehensive education, Tom Atkinson folds. Yet, Bartlett purports, is there something in our culture that demands this blood sport. Patrick McAndrew’s boss is all Alan Sugar wide boy patter, ‘You’re Fired’ reverberating around us, all in the name of entertainment.
It can be difficult to fully combine the big idea with an emotional cleft. Stef Smith’s Girl In The Machine (***) is interesting in its exploration of the role of technology in all our lives, but less effective in making us connect with the relationship drama of its central protagonists. Its conclusion is bloody but not teary. Yet who can say they’re comfortable watching a character struggle to switch off from technology, who isn’t worried about how much of us is linked to the online world. Smith’s play is both intimate in form and large in scope. The relationship strains as the wider world burns. It is doing too much in its short, condensed form. Chiara Lari and Joe Edgar are believable as the solicitor and the nurse who begin to view the world from different lenses. Yet in Ellie Jay Stevens’s production, given a sleek futuristic twist by Hugo Dodsworth’s design, it’s Alex Crook’s sinewy, intoxicating voice that turns sci-fi into horror. We’re a long way from Go West here.