By Gillie Tunley and Brenda Sandilands.

WriteFest 2019 at the Progress Theatre. Image (c) Richard Brown

The Progress Theatre are staging their fourteenth annual WriteFest this week, featuring seven scintillating new short plays of dramatically contrasting genres, written, directed and performed by its multi-talented members.

First up was the Cat in a Box, written by John R. Goodman and delightfully directed by Guy Nicholls, a tale of two fabulous science spouting felines, clawing and hissing over the ownership of The Box (the cheeky peep-bo Esther Arzola, occupant of the same, and sometime bereted Gallic cat, and the lithe and languorous Faith Manfield, stretch luxuriously and scrabble hilariously with a giant ball of wool). What a purrfect prelude to the evening’s entertainment!

This was followed by the intense and immediate How to put a Scratch in a Dinghy, written by David Pearson and directed by Francesca Allano and Ali Carroll, featuring the social media troubled Zara (played with glib Angst by Alex Salisbury) spreading love with her Utopian Zara Life; but in reality, she is obsessed by the need to self-promote, manipulating an ‘aggressive sexual deviant’ (oppressively played by Lesa Khan) who has overstepped the mark on a nightclub floor. It confronts the need for accountability… and the perpetual search for justice.

Writefest 2019 at the Progress Theatre. Image (c) Richard Brown

Next was the thought-provoking The Bumblebee, written by Caroline White and tautly directed by Stephanie Gunner-Lucas. In this deeply disturbing dystopian piece, we see The Patient (played with heart-wrenching anguish by Emma Wyverne) incarcerated in a windowless sanatorium and stripped of memory; she pleads with the sinister Doctor (a crisply clinical portrayal by Esther Arzola) to tell her about the last five years – what has happened to her, to her daughter? And why is she here? This poignant play raises moral and legal questions, which still resonate today…

Dan Clarke’s dark piece Perversions, directed by Rik Eke, features three brutally disfigured people (played with distressing intensity by Samantha Bessant, Mathew Beswick and Poppy Price). It reminds us of the three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. This tense and tortured piece has us on the edge of our seats. Who is responsible… and what is their motivation?

WriteFest 2019 at the Progress Theatre. Image (c) Richard Brown

The hilarious The Costume Department, written by Emily Goode and directed with panache by Caroline White, provides comic contrast! We meet the two ‘combatants’, volunteers in the costume department of an amateur theatre, one the fastidious ‘folder’ Angie (an uproariously funny portrayal by Liz Carroll) and the other the long-suffering shoe ‘pairer’ Reb (played with sturdy stoicism by Trish Grimes). But when the latter dons a hat, she morphs into a gutsy music hall turn… superb slapstick follows, involving colourful costume changes (I loved the colossal orange clown pants) and utterly delicious farce – we wept tears of laughter.

The Cord, written by Liz Carroll and directed by Penny Wenham, is a moving and heartbreaking account of how the dynamic of a mother-daughter relationship can change. Ali Carroll gives a tour de force performance as Angela, the loving daughter with the almost unbearable responsibility for her mentally ailing mother. This sensitively written play will surely strike a chord amongst the audience…

The finale, Meeting Mrs Grim, written by Anthony Travis and directed by Jo Metcalf, is the absurdly funny tale of Mrs Grim (yes, really, she is a woman – the superbly indomitable Liz Carroll!) on her mission to ‘reap’ her victims, assisted by modern IT devices, wi-fi and an over-sized scythe. Her first victim, a snoring tartan form (an ebullient portrayal by Matthew Beswick) is prodded awake, terrified… more hilarity ensues and yes, we are happy to say, it is done in the best possible taste!

Writefest 2019 at the Progress Theatre. Image (c) Richard Brown

The evening was ably steered by the witty and winsome Debora Rochfort, with some apt quotes: Noel Coward “know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”. Thankfully, all participants complied and we had a wonderful night’s entertainment!

The seven plays in this, the fourteenth annual Writefest, are being performed at the Progress Theatre, The Mount, Reading RG1 5HL at 7.45pm each evening until and including Saturday 14 September. There is also a performance at 2.30pm on Saturday 14 September. Tickets can be bought online.

  1. The Progress Theatre website and Facebook page
  2. ‘WriteFest’ at the Progress Theatre
  3. Progress Theatre Tickets