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Written on the Waves: Loss and Hope – 45North/Ellie Keel Productions

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Luke Barnes, Tife Kusoro and Rafaella Marcus

Director: Madeleine Kludje, Grace Cordell and Jessica Lazar

Audio dramas have had a big boost in the last few months and although actors and writers for theatre have often created content for radio, there has been renewed interest in plays written or repurposed as audio experiences. Accompanying the Donmar Warehouse’s experimental Blindness and English Touring Theatre’s F**ked-Up Bedtime Stories, 45 North have recorded a series of plays developed for the Alchymy Festival.

Oxford arts venue The North Wall’s annual festival originally scheduled for April has been re-orientated as the Written on the Waves series which plans to release six dramas in its first series. It opens with Loss and Hope, uniting playwrights Rafaella Marcus, Luke Barnes and Tife Kusoro to celebrate the power of connectivity.

Marcus’ The Gift is the shortest, a 5-minute excerpt that expands on a world the writer created for the 2020 Festival in which the protagonist played by Olivia Marcus loses a ring during a walk. With a magical realist approach, the unnamed girl believes she has seen the woman she thinks of as an aunt who died some time before as Marcus explores ideas of grief and guilt. A slight piece, there are some vivid descriptive passages that lay the groundwork for a second Marcus play presented later in the series.

For the 2018 festival, established writer Luke Barnes was commissioned to create the monologue This is a Man which examines male mental health and the consequences of repressed emotion. The narrator Greg, read by Liam Jeavons, suffers a family tragedy which Barnes imagines in poignant detail, but focuses on the limited emotional reaction that the character displays – a concerning pattern of behaviour that begins with an incident involving the school hamster for which Greg shows no remorse and charts the consequences as his detachment evolves.

Barnes is interested in prescribed concepts of masculinity, how Greg is pressured to ‘hold it together’ while his equally emotionless father reminds him that ‘men don’t lose control.’ Running at around 18 minutes, the play is sometimes quite crude in its depiction of events and need to hurry the story along within the limited running time, but the connection Barnes makes between conforming to expected modes of behaviour and the, often violent, explosions that engenders them is an interesting one.

Tife Kusoro’s We Have Sinned is the best of the three, originally developed in 2019 as part of the festival’s residency programme for early-career playwrights. Focusing on the limited sex education for teenage girls and pressures to comply with external demands for intimate photos and eventually sex itself, Kusoro frames her play as three separate confessions to an unseen Catholic priest over a period of a few months.

The strength of Esther’s voice is its strongest asset, a young, urban girl left to navigate her developing womanhood via peer pressure, Internet searches and demands from a boyfriend while receiving little practical support from her school or her entirely unreferenced family. Kusoro well captures the naïve certainty of a teenage girl – whose age is never revealed – thinking she is in charge of her life but easily swayed by external influences.

Each of the audio dramas employ sound effects to suggest various locations while interspersing music where it supports the script that help to vary the presentation. Given the developmental nature of the festival, these are works in progress which may find a different resonance when the visual possibilities of staging are added to the mix but the Loss and Hope collection is an enjoyable taster from the writers of the future.

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