It’s interesting to think about why Luke Norris and Hayley Squires made the final cut in the Royal Court Young Writers’ Festival. Both plays deal with seriously ‘in vogue’ topics. Norris’ fierce but romantic play, Goodbye To All That, explores a range of older characters and the medical system that supposedly cares for them. Hayley Squires’ one-hour play, Vera Vera Vera, examines the aftermath of the death of a young soldier in the war in Afghanistan.
But topicality is rarely extracted from play’s context, alone. Instead, a play’s relevance and power really depends on the nature of the playwright’s voice. Norris’ dialogue has a spiky intensity, which lent his play a pounding urgency. Sure, the piece feels stretched in places, but it is also bold and passionate; shot through with the sort of righteous anger that says more about the injustice of the healthcare system, and the plucky spirit of pensioners, than any carefully managed monologue might manage. But Squires’ play, for all its nods at the mushroom-clouding impact of one soldier’s death, tells us little about the close, emotional impact of a distant war. Instead, the topic of war is really just a brittle framework for a much softer play about young love, and the bravery and strength it can instil in lost and lonely teenagers.
One of the last lines in Squires’ play is a word of consolation from soft-hearted (but hard fisted) Sammy, who tries to comfort his freshly-minted girlfriend, Charlie: ‘I think cuddles are the way forward mate.’ These are not the words of an angry playwright. And, yet, much of Squires’ play is jet-black with rage and despair. Unsurprisingly, these misery-soaked scenes never quite come off. One gets the impression of a writer trying to be something she is not.
The angry scenes resemble an amped up, late night episode of EastEnders. Brother and sister, Emily (Danielle Flett) and Danny (Tommy McDonnel), are preparing for the funeral of their brother, a soldier killed in war. One is a hard as nails drug dealer and another is a hollowed out druggy. Flett and Donnel act with all the intensity they can muster but the scenes, whilst high-pitched, are also flat. Squires’ writing postures at rage but never really hums with it. Perhaps, if the whole play had been filled with such destitute characters, then some variety and subtly might have been found - but the sharp contrast between these screeching, sorrowful scenes and the innocent love story that plays out alongside them, makes them sharper still and even harder to believe.
It is in the much gentler scenes that Squires finds her voice. Charlie (Abby Rakic-Platt) and Sammy (Ted Riley) might be preparing for a punch up with a local, loud-mouth but their scenes are infused with innocent pleasures. Squires captures the tone of teenage flirtations very well; the whirlwind way in which the young rattle through their rollercoaster thoughts, the wonderful mix of bravado and vulnerability and the jolting shift between boyish banter and romantic yearnings. This might sound horrifically cheesy, but Charlie’s decision to save Sammy a Penguin bar says much more about the sacrifices that lovers make for each other, than any of those drug-fuelled face-offs. This is the world that Squires understands and translates with skill – let’s hope her next play is a little less angry and far more powerful for it.