BATS Theatre
June 20-July 5 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

THE 2008 Young and Hungry Festival trio of new plays all have darkness in the form of death at their hearts. But that is not to say they are depressing affairs – on opening night laughter was the predominant audience response. As usual, the young performers involved in each professionally mentored show put a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm into the works, despite their varying quality. It’s a worthwhile endeavour and BATS and the Young and Hungry Board and mentors should be commended for keeping the spirit alive during times of increasingly straightened arts funding.

The most criticisms are usually directed at the script writing process – it is claimed that all the playwrights are supported and mentored and the plays themselves fully workshopped. However, it seems to be an unfortunate feature of Young and Hungry that one play always turns out to be under baked. This year that unfortunate role seems to be occupied by Arthur Meek’s Yolk. Despite having an interesting premise at its centre – a teenager coping with the early death of her Mother by hoping to become a young mother – the play doesn’t meet its potential. This is not aided by uninspired direction that lacks pace in particular. The reveals come a little too slowly for a sub-60 minute play and it begins to feel like less of a script and more like a series of slogans. This is a shame as the cast cope well with their difficult and under-developed characters, especially Jennifer Drake as central character Flip. Most laughs were generated by the camp commentary (which was not in the script I suspect) provided by Fip’s gay best friend Elliot (Ailua Tagiilima). It felt like a lot of talent was going to waste here – but maybe that is part of the point of Young and Hungry – trying and sometimes failing. It just seems a shame that those who are amateurs are let down by those who are supposed to be providing professional guidance and/or material.

Fortunately, the other two plays, Swan Song by Branwen Millar and RPM by Dave Armstrong are far more rounded scripts. Swan Song begins with the murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Ashley/Ashly, and then splits in time going forward and backwards. Ashley (played by Beatrice Joblin) reviews the events of her life, aided by her childhood imaginary friend Theresa (Stella Reid). Ashly (Katie Montgomerie) moves forward in time, living the life she might have had. Ashley was a mediocre girl by her own assessment, and despite her attempt to view the past in a more interesting light she can’t change anything – only gain insight. But given that she has no ‘real’ future this insight is largely useless. Ashly, in her entirely imaginary future life has no limits to what she can do, but finds it to be a hollow existence. As Theresa explains – the problem with being imaginary is that once you’re forgotten you cease to exist. Willem Wassenaar has brought his distinctive style to this play with success – Ashley and Ashly are played relatively ‘straight’ but surrounded by a host of surreal characters. Bright colours and energy abound in the design and the play doesn’t suffer from the lack of pitch that some of the others do. This is by far the most enjoyable of the three shows, partly because Millar resists the urge to dogmatically set out her message and Wassenaar has brought out the best in his talented cast.

The final play of the evening takes on the teen boy (and girl) racer culture which has been much vilified of late. Dave Armstrong resists the urge to defend, but instead offers us characters who are accessible and seem to have solid reasons for their passion for cars and driving beyond the speed limit – mostly unhappy relationships with their families. They all want to fit and throw off their stereotypes. Another central theme is the romantic relationships starting and stalling between the characters – although several of them get involved in slightly implausible ways. The play loosely follows Justine, a girl racer from the Hutt and people associated with her – her boyfriend, Luke; his mechanic mate, Phil; the younger private school girl, Vanessa, that she has been forced to hang out with for a night and her boyfriend of sorts, and her fellow girl racer and staunch friend Rose. Events take place over a night during which relationships change and a life is destroyed. Armstrong has produced a sharply observed piece, with lines like “Did Mrs Milf have a grunty sub-box” getting good laughs. Leo Gene Peters has worked well with a script that requires many things the size of BATS and the budget of Young and Hungry struggle to accommodate – multiple scene changes, cars and travel. Projection, particularly over sound effects was a problem at some points.

If you can see all three shows and support Young and Hungry. If you are short on time, Swan Song is the one that really flies, although RPM is worth a viewing too.