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That's the advantage of collections of short plays; if you don't fancy one, the next one will be along soon.

Theatre Review: Shortcuts 2006: A Festival of New Theatre at the Union, Southwark

At the centre of Sentenced is a crime – the hideous crime of rape. Yet Matt Hartley’s short play is not about the crime itself, but about the reactions of four people – the wife of the criminal Janet (An Marie Cavanagh); his brother Andrew (Felix Scott) his PA Amanda (Sarah Jane Wolverson), and finally and most awfully, his victim, Ben (Matthew Pearson).

It is a powerful, sometimes gut-wrenching, play that fills the second half of “programme c”, one of three playing in rotation in the Union Theatre’s Shortcuts 2006 festival. The acting is strong, the presentation strong, if sometimes director Cressida Brown’s use of the contrast between shouting and long pauses is a little overdone.

Yet so often as after viewing a play built such themes, I am left wondering why? What did this play actually have to say, as it was putting the audience through the wringer? Rape is a terrible thing that has destructive effects far beyond the victim… well yes – I suspect most of us know that already. There’s dramatic tension in Janet’s quest, but does it justify the horror?

The first half of programme c, five playlets running around 10 minutes each, by the playwrights’ group The Apathists, has a very different feel, boasting a fine mix of comedy and drama. (This group also has a rather good website – surprisingly rare in these quarters.)

That quality is also reflected in their work at the Union: a couple of these efforts are excellent demonstrations of what is really possible on a stage in ten minutes. The finest is Duncan MacMillan’s Sleeve Notes, a monologue finely acted by Rosie Thomson of a woman, grown up now, describing her desperate attempts to come to terms with her mother’s repeated attempts at suicide.

The exposition is beautifully structured; I won’t give away too much, but the account emerges in a series of small shocks, interleaved with a warm portrayal of an individual’s capacity to maintain hope, to maintain humanity, in horrific circumstances.

The second standout here is Mike Bartlett’s Sun Rise, a monologue delivered by Tom Davies as a 30-year-old no-longer-a-virgin (as of a few hours ago) web designer. His often boastful, sometimes boyish, sometimes distinctly spooky words peel back the layers of his character with humour, and more than a touch of threat.

Several of The Apathist works play with the idea of theatre, reality, layers of script and acting, with variable results. This Is Never Going To Work, by Nick Gill, is delightfully clever but a little, as it points out itself, too much wit around a core of air – still a pleasant enough start.

Letters fits in the same oh-so-clever category. We’re in a sort of anti-Groundhog Day – the same set of actions and emotions, played over and over, but to very different words, from the meaninglessly surreal to the deeply significant, to the banal. Actors Paul O’Mahoney and Alex Beckett do a solid job with the script of Rachel Wagstaff and Adam Barnard, even if it does have a hint of the drama school exercise about it.

There’s only one effort here that really doesn’t make the grade – Three Monkeys Though Sometimes Four. The “this is a dream now I wake up” trope has to be done a great deal better than this to make a stageable effort.

But that’s the advantage of collections of short plays; if you don’t fancy one, the next one will be along soon. And on the evidence of this evening, there should be plenty of good theatrical rides to be had in the festival. In a few years there’s a fair chance you’ll be seeing some of these playwright’s names up in lights, so you’ll be able to play some theatrical games of your own in recalling these, their early outings.

Shortcuts 2006 continues until October 21. You can see which night this programme is showing.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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