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2021 Papatango New Writing Prize

Review by Dominic Corr

Writers: Tajinder Singh Hayer, Nkenna Akunna and Tom Powell

Directors: Jessica Lazar, Rasheka Christie-Carter, and George Turvey 

Establishing itself as an institutional award of British theatre, the Papatango Prize has taken a new form for the 2021 winner – or rather, winners. Due to the continuing Covid-19 measures, the awards were re-imagined so that three winners would be afforded the opportunity to produce their productions. Not as full in-person events like predecessors (2020 winner Igor Memic’s Old Bridge only now receiving audiences) but as three one-hour long audio plays in partnership with English Touring Theatre.. Available across fourteen different locations, the lack of a physical stage may have drawbacks for some, but the formidable choices are clear to digest.

And where better to begin than with a collection of Ghost Stories from an Old Country. Tajinder Singh Hayer’s piece may initially conjure the traditional expectations of ghoulish tales, but rather the play intricately infuses the foundations of Punjabi stories. Rooted in pragmatic anguish, Singh Hayer’s assortment of tales seeds itself amidst the life of Amar, a man tormented by the stories his estranged brother Dalvir shared with him in their youth. Carrying these into adulthood, themes of mental health, fraternal conflicts, and life in the British-Punjabi community are unearthed once more for Amar.

Enabling the structure of a compendium of tales to evolve into an examination of brotherhood, Jessica Lazar’s direction draws out the most from the cast. In communications with both his therapist and brother (Raj Ghatak), Shane Zara’s Amar is relatable and draws empathy from the audience as they unearth more of the shadowed pain. And the individual ghost stories themselves are marvellous, each unique and they differ somewhat from the traditional British tale that audiences may be familiar with, scored and designed to an appropriately chilling level by Farokh Soltani.

From the offset, Tom Powell’s The Silence and the Noise makes a significant impact with its quality, storytelling and main chemistry.  Director George Turvey takes measured patience with Powell’s script, ensuring clarity in the tenderness and chemistry between leads Aldous Ciokajo-Squire and Shakira Riddell-Morales. Chartering a series of encounters between friends Ant (Ciokajlo-Squire) and Daize (Riddell-Morales) Powell’s script has a softness to it without sacrificing authenticity in the tension and characterisation.

And ingeniously, there is a third character of sorts, a presence off-stage through Beetle, Ant’s malicious boss. It infuses a needed element of thrill, raising the stakes as the dialogue-heavy piece unwraps these characters and their genuine intentions and desire for sanctuary. A spectacular piece, with remnants of a legion of coming-of-age tales, about teens who come to recognise the value of one another and the trials of each other’s lives.

Sandwiched between the two, Some of Us Exist in the Future possesses less refinement but a grander potential. Plucky, with a growing and profound capture of language and raw emotion, Nkenna Akunna’s piece channels multiple dimensions as Rachel Nwokoro’s Chiamaka uproots from London and travels to New York. She struggles not only with her physical life but also with the inner voices of a bickering couple – a couple somehow connected with the stone sitting around her neck. Identity is at the forefront of Some of Us Exist in the Future, as such the story ties in aspects of migration, and a returning of faith.

Listeners will conclude their favourites, though it is clear that the plays by Powell and Singh Hayer feel like more complete and rounded productions. The monumental decision to award multiple creatives delivers a diverse programme and raises new challenges for these winners.

The 2021 Papatango New Writing Prize winning shows will tour fourteen locations for broadcast and available here 

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