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Young Writers Festival sets the pace

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The fortieth Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court has once again proved its value and staying power. And not only with the two fully presented plays in the Theatre Upstairs -- Luke Norris' Goodbye To All That and now Hayley Squires' Vera Vera Vera.

The other Saturday morning I attended some "book in hand" performances of the pick of the short plays from the development phase of this year's YWF, supported by the John Lyon's Charity, following a programme of appetisers last November.

There were seven short pieces by writers aged eight to 11, then three longer play extracts by writers aged 12 to 15, in two separate hour-long sessions on the Royal Court's main stage, transmitted by an expert cast of seven actors under the direction of Charlotte Gwinner. The younger writers had been tutored by Constellations playwright Nick Payne, the older ones by EV Crowe.

There was an interesting contrast. The younger writers were much more anarchic, less constrained by the idea of "theatre" or "characterisation," practising a sort of junior magic realism in plays about a girl who becomes a cat and finds new friends; revenge on humans in food paradise by dough balls and sausage rolls; a posh lady whose magic wig turns her to stone until she becomes a nicer person when softened by rain (but only after being dumped on a rubbish tip).

One of the younger writers, Lavinia Scoyni, even wrote an epic weepie involving a family in hiding from NKDV officers in Stalinist Russia where one of the oppressors turns out to be the family's missing father. The mood soon lightened when a boy jumped down a hole in his garden and found a flying potion with a long-nosed hippo called Gary after a series of adventures with a Russian prince and a band of singing jungle monkeys ("We love cocktails"). Floyd Collins actor Ryan Sampson wrote the catchy tunes for the kids' lyrics.

The three older writers, all girls, wrote about friendship, depression, grief, loss and prison. But they all exhibited an attempt to wrestle with dramatic conflict, and Jessica Kelly had a fine sense of scene setting in the series of encounters on a South London train between a gentle older black woman and an awkward white student with domestic problems.

Seren Williams underpinned a raucous party sleepover with a hint of sexual abuse, and Olivia Sewell Risley sketched another tear-jerker. It wouldn't surprise me to see any of these three represented some time soon with a full production in the Theatre Upstairs. Perhaps a double-bill of two of them?

At Vera Vera Vera on Monday night I was intrigued to learn that there is, in fact, a longer version of the play, which supports my theory that Squires has a lot more room to manoeuvre with this material than she so far admits. I was still reeling from the brilliance of the young actors' performances when I bumped into the unlikely figure of David Conville on his way to the after-party.

Conville -- actor, writer, producer, director -- is celebrating this summer his fifty years association with the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, where he launched the New Shakespeare Company with director David William before handing over, eventually, to Ian Talbot who, in turn, has made way for Timothy Sheader and William Village.

So, although he is proud of once working with Royal Court founder George Devine, Conville is almost the very last sort of theatre person you'd expect to find hanging around Sloane Square and endangering his stylish equilibrium along the cutting edge.

But he'd come up to town from Dorset in order to queue for a return ticket and support his grandson, Ted Riley, who plays the pugnacious teenager Sammy in Vera Vera Vera.

In his edgy and tender encounters with Abby Rakic-Platt's teasing Charlie (short for Charlene), Sammy dips his toe in the murky waters of sexual self-pleasuring for teenagers, but does so with an abundance of cheeriness and charm.

Conville, a sprightly 82-year-old, wasn't remotely thrown by any of this, and told me that he'd enjoyed the anti-war play enormously, despite his rather posh military background; his father was a lieutenant colonel in the army, and he was born in India before going to Marlborough College.

What had he thought of young Ted's performance? "Bloody marvellous. And he's only been an actor for twelve weeks!"

A rare weekday night off from the theatre last night allowed me to enjoy an evening of balmy summer weather in a lazy watering of the garden before watching a thrilling FA Cup sixth round replay between Sunderland and Everton on the television.

Everton, whose chairman Bill Kenwright must be biting his fingernails as co-producer of the seriously struggling Wizard of Oz at the Palladium, will be part compensated if Everton win through against Liverpool in the semi-final next month.

The team's first goal in a convincing 2-0 victory was superbly taken by their new Croatian striker, Nikica Jelavic. Surely Bill must have exerted a subliminal advertising influence on the Guardian headline writer who came up this morning with: "Everton follow the Jelavic road to Wembley"?


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