First Stage is part of the Re: Play Festival at the Contact Theatre. It allows the authors to see their work performed and gives the audience a rare chance to see how plays develop as well as a glimpse at potential fringe theatre for the future. Phillip Brankin and Rachael Moorhouse have assembled a talented group of actors and directors to present excerpts from three new plays – the condition being that none has been presented before.

It is hard, from the excerpts, to guess how the plays might develop. This is particularly the case with The Myth of Escape by Rob Johnston. The extract features two characters who are imprisoned in separate cells and so unable to see each other but still able to communicate. There have been other dramas in which characters are forced to find common interests by imprisonment. Here, however, they seem separated by differences in class or education standards than by, say, sexuality. The dialogue is excellent and the actors create a sense of isolation by avoiding eye contact throughout the performance  

The extract suggests a modest two-character play but the author’s response to questions after the reading indicate that the play will have three acts and feature an additional character. This wider aspect indicates that the theme of the play is likely to be isolation – as the characters will continue to struggle to make a connection even if not imprisoned.

How the Cabinet Maker Crossed the Road by Becky Prestwich is less convincing. John is reduced to begging in the vicinity of the rather posh residence of his late brother’s family. With the reluctant assistance of a new neighbour he plots to infiltrate the family he has alienated. The humour, and situations described, in the play swing from realistic to exaggerated. The story, however, feels contrived, as it is difficult to identify any practical obstacles that might prevent the characters from just talking to each other and so avoid the need for John’s plot.

Crabs by Terry Hughes is very hard to judge as it is at an early stage of development without an ending determined. Tales of hard men facing temptation to return to their violent past practices are not new. Although the central character is well realised the ease of portraying the seductive power of violence on-stage and the difficulty of showing the value of more positive behaviour suggest that the ending is going to be depressingly inevitable.

First Stage was a fascinating experience. It will be really interesting to see the finished productions. As yet only The Myth of Escape has a scheduled date of 11th to 13th July 2011 at Studio Salford. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the other plays.
 
- Dave Cunningham