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Young Writers Festival Awards

by on 29 March 2021

Out of the mouths of children

The Arts Richmond Young Writers Festival

The Stage Company, at the Exchange Theatre, Twickenham, 28th March

A review by Matthew Grierson

While many of us have spent the past year confined to quarters, the young writers of the borough have not let this limit their imaginations. In this afternoon’s performance of entries to Arts Richmond’s annual Young Writers Festival, the virtual audience is transported from Arctic to beach to forest by the well-crafted words of local schoolchildren. Each is brought to life in an economical staged reading with professional actors Cara Steele, AJ MacGillivray and Jo Shirley, under the direction of Keith Wait.

The show opens with a digitally conjured blizzard against the black-box set to suggest the wintry setting of Max Wilkinson’s The Polar Bear’s Mission. The story, with its war between bears and wolves, nods to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy but clearly has its own mythology in mind. Like some of the later contributions, it seems to be an excerpt or prologue from a still-bigger world its young author has envisaged.

Wolves return in a fairy tale of that name by Alba Spencer-Brown – the winner of this category – where they close in on AJ’s frightened protagonist in the woods before he is rescued by Cara and Shirley in the form of friendly squirrels. If only we could escape lockdown in so magical a manner: Imogen Bishop would love that, as her diary of My Life in Lockdown details the sadness of being separated from her friends and being home-schooled. As he reads it, AJ is this time trapped by the other two actors, who inch up on him like walls closing in. But there’s is still fun to be had in lockdown, particularly when Imogen recounts a visit to a pretend restaurant. The absence of playmates is lamented once more in Galia Isolde Martin’s Missing Friends, but she too finds solace in the simple comforts of family, food, toys and bed, joyously expressed in Cara’s enthusiastic performance.

A friend of another kind features in Layla Farr’s The Owner, in the form of the adorable pup Rozo. Layla skilfully builds suspense about whether her new pooch pal will have to move away or not (don’t worry, folks, it does have a happy ending). And there is more animal life in Lara Ozdalga’s poem Bournemouth Beach, where the three game performers are choreographed in a lively undersea dance. Visits to Dorset are clearly popular in the local imagination, as Celia Grace Skingley’s account of The Journey to a beach near Corfe Castle is the winner of the year 5 and 6 category.

It’s clear, too, that this second age group has been reading widely, and inspired by a range of literary influences. The Dickensian gothic of Anna Wilkinson’s The Midnight Horseman is staged with AJ looming on a chair over his potential victims, while in the Wilfred Owen-inspired Peace at Last by Zakariyya Aziz, the same actor takes on the voice of a spectral soldier in the trenches. He’s then caught in a pincer movement by Cara and Jo in Rosie Lever’s playful No, which riffs on Thomas Hood to satirise the suddenness of last autumn’s lockdown.

Isabelle Edwards tackles the related subject of Coronavirus in a playful rhyme that still manages to acknowledge the anger and sorrow caused by the pandemic, which are conveyed in the actors’ variously energised and subdued performances. Also in this category are touching monologues about living with ADHD and autism and with dyslexia, by Henry Phillpot and Eloise Poland Bowen respectively.

Meanwhile, Theo Hardwick Skottowe’s poem Forest takes us into the woods, benefitting both from sound effects and green lighting – which, to poignant effect, slowly fade out as the poem’s environmental message becomes clear. Its ecological concerns are recurrent cross the different age groups, and Tilly Downie wins the years 7–9 category with her Arctic Villanelle. Drawing again on the image of the polar bear, her poem is an accomplished use of form, and its triple structure is shared out effectively among the three-strong cast.

Other writers respond effectively and imaginatively to what they’ve been learning, whether on Zoom or in the classroom. Saskia Hanson’s Why I Love Science has an enthusiasm that might have brightened any home schooling, and Cara’s commemoration of Florence Nightingale’s brilliance plays as though spontaneously inspired by the pioneering nurse. Equally inspired is Necklace, where Uma Cizmic successfully projects back a generation to Tuzla to tell a personal story of Eastern European conflict. There is much to commend the writing, and I savoured especially the image of the former Yugoslavia as ‘a solved puzzle’ before it comes to pieces. The simple staging is equally resonant, and even a neighbour’s rap on the door to alert the family sounds ominously like a machinegun.

Lara Diana Antelo Miles contributes a pair of poems in this category: Fabric finds an interesting metaphor for the practice of care, while the Proustian recollection of Audrey in the garden is thankfully much shorter than Marcel’s magnum opus! In a likewise literary vein, Anna Fibbins’ In Lost sounds as though it were the beginning of a YA novel, with the actors drawing us into its disarming dreamscape.

The same could be said as we move into the year 10 and above category, with Nicco Bargioni’s The Fog and Ivy being both a self-contained story and a portal into an intriguingly sinister narrative about the so-called ‘Ghostmaker’. This confident monologue is well delivered in character by AJ, approaching the webcam to hint at the extra dimension in the writing – I’m surprised in fact that this effective use of the set’s depth was not employed for some of the other pieces. Another treat from the oldest age group is Chloe Yun-Jen Chen’s Oh Dear Lord, in which the blame for the world’s current calamities is laid at the door of retired gods living in Florida. It’s a conceit that Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett would have been proud of.

This age group seems to feel more keenly the intensity of adolescence as well. Nia Ivanova Videnova’s Heron – a monologue about a visit to Bushy Park – certainly relishes the language of disaffection, and Cara works her way through the Latinate prose to convey the teenage hauteur. Leah Ash’s How Much of it Was Lies complements this attitude with a bitter lament for a failed relationship.

But it’s also clear that our young writers can imagine beyond contemporary personal and political circumstances, and Catherine James’ One Hundred and Three is written in the voice of an upbeat pensioner looking back on his life. Avni Ladwa’s Through your Eyes even celebrates the capacity for empathy, and the poem is thus a fitting winner for the final category.

The performances are followed by a brief prizegiving with Arts Richmond chair Nick George, who praises the effort of all the writers and actors, before Richmond’s mayor Geoff Acton observes how well the pieces have been brought to life on stage. The Exchange’s technical team have done wonders bringing us this event almost without hitch, so are to be forgiven that we don’t get to see the winners on camera at the end. At least we get to hear the young voices – which is, after all, the whole point of the afternoon.

Matthew Grierson, March 2021

Photography by AJ MacGillivray

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  1. Young Writers Festival | Mark Aspen

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