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Phil Setren On ... The London New Play Festival

Watching Bonnie Greer’s masterful performance opposite Nick Griffin on the now infamous edition of Question Time a fortnight ago, it was hard to picture the fledgling playwright she once was. But Greer is among a long list of Newsnight Review types who first cut their cultural teeth at the London New Play Festival (LNPF).

Established in 1989, this annual new writing event also premiered the work of Mark Ravenhill, Joe Penhall, Naomi Wallace and Anthony Neilson at venues ranging from the Old Red Lion to the Young Vic. And after a few years off, it is back celebrating its twentieth birthday at the Cock Tavern this month. The festival's founding director Phil Setren fills in the gaps.

What brought the LNPF to the Cock Tavern this year?
The venue has the right energy. It’s a studio space catered to new writing and being one of the newest and most intimate venues in London, it just has the right ethic for the festival. It’s almost feels like the Finborough and the Old Red Lion felt like in the early days when Mark Ravenhill and Joe Penhall were being read upstairs. It’s also one of London’s oldest music pubs - Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the Kilburn Five both started here. So it’s an interesting place to hold the event.

How did the festival first get started?
I came over from Toronto with a play that went to Edinburgh. We were then invited to the Kings Head and in 1989, I got asked to look after a small fringe theatre called the Cafe Theatre. Instead of doing the same old promoting, we pulled together a 12-play festival and then went into a second year at the Old Red Lion. Twenty years later, we’re still here.

What was the early ethos of the festival?
We were really interested in what was new in playwriting today: how immediate a play could be and what it really wanted to say to an audience. As the festival grew annually, we started becoming this place where a lot of first-timers were able to try out their work. With 12 plays on the go, you had a lot of playwrights, directors and actors in a small space together.

What was the status of new writing at the time?
When we were first starting off, there was some good work going on at The Bush and Royal Court, but there wasn’t this festival energy where you could take a look at a huge variety of new writing. Because of our initiative in 1989, a lot of other similar events were born. But at the time, we were really important to the theatre calendar. Places like the Royal Court would look to us once a year and the risks we were taking on these playwrights were starting to influence the risks of others. We tried 10 minute plays, 15 minute plays; we even commissioned the first play about a gay MP being outed.

Mark Ravenhill’s Close to You in 1993. Did you know you’d found a new writing star?
Some of the script readers thought it was too rude, that it would give us a bad name what with this character killed by a rent boy and dragged behind a fridge. But a few of us argued that the dialogue was too funny for us not to do it. You could tell the talent of a Mark Ravenhill. He wasn’t just being rude for the sake of it. That was the piece that came before Shopping and Fucking. So in a sense it was the thing that gave him confidence to write his later plays.

Which other plays stick in the memory?
I remember The Cezanne Syndrome by Normand Canac-Marquis, about a married couple’s relationship coming apart. It was full of amazing imagery about being too close to the canvas or too far away, like with Cezanne’s paintings. Then there was Laura Bridgeman’s Gay Marriage in Suburbia, which we did at the Young Vic in 1996 before the whole civil partnership debate. It really had something to say about British suburban values and gay and lesbian couples. That was a big one. And that same year we did Hoover Bag by Anthony Neilson, which was a modern horror story set in a futuristic world where mad cow disease was the norm. Anthony set the audience up with heart monitors to see whether their hearts would race during the play.

Has the selection process changed over the years?
Not really. We have a group of 15 readers and our criteria are originality, form, language, style and content, but most of all what the play has to say. This year, rock and pop music is a key theme. The centre piece (Setren’s own play Three Minute Hero) is about the music business and we also have a series of commissioned plays inspired by the Clash’s London Calling album. We asked writers to listen to the CD and tell us if it spoke to them.

Were you worried about including your own play?
I’m usually shy about putting on my own work. I would only ever contribute short and group pieces. But this is something I have been working on for many years. It’s a story of the stage door man who always dreamed of being something else and I’m thrilled finally to be putting it on. We’re also running our 'Write a Play in a Day' class, where we get 10 new writers, some of whom have never written before, and demystify it for them. This year, we’re doing it just for Kilburn residents so who knows? Maybe their play could be the next one on stage.

The 2009 London New Play Festival runs until 14 November at the Cock Tavern, Kilburn. More details here.


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