National Theatre Connections Festival: The Free9 and The Blue Electric Wind
The Connections Festival at the National Theatre is a collaborative project that sees youth theatre troupes from all over the country come together to perform in especially-commissioned pieces. The short plays are penned by up-and-coming writers, and produced with professional oversight from the NT. On Friday 29th June, Eamonn Lynch-Bowers was able to catch two of these productions at the National’s Dorfman Theatre.
‘The Free 9’, by In-Sook Chappell, performed by TRANSMISSION
Having escaped the brutal North Korean regime, eight teenage street-urchins find themselves locked in a single holding cell in Laos. In a strobe of flashing lights, we are dropped into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ world in which nobody can be trusted, and nothing is as it seems. As the paranoia and suspicion begin to creep in, it is only by tracing the group’s journey backwards that we begin to piece together the mysterious figures of Big Brother (Lucy Whelan) and The Forgotten (Roslyn Baidoo) who linger in the darkness.
It should first be noted that the young actors in this piece are very impressive. For a play only an hour long, it demands an awful lot of its cast, fluid scene transitions and chorus elements requiring the performers to remain on stage for the lion’s share of the duration. In this time, the cast is required to tackle anything from scenes of hallucinations, to physical theatre, to dream sequences, to intimidate character moments. All in a day’s work for TRANSMISSION, a new company from North London. Each performer skilfully carves out their role with remarkable ease, to create memorable stand-alone characters, as well as a believably fractious vibe to the group of refugees. The piece relies heavily on the ensemble dynamic, and TRANSMISSION tease this out of Chappell’s work very capably, and with formidable deftness.
The story too is involving, though a little too cryptic for its own good. The initial scenes feel particularly disorientating as we begin to establish the remnants of relationships we know nothing about, before even the basic background of the plot is established. In the clinical whiteness of the holding cell, the Free 9 – some of whom dream of escaping into South Korea and starting their own pop group – whittle away the time by dancing together and discussing the lives they used to lead. Eventually, through a series of flash-backs, we begin to understand some our protagonists’ behaviours. This is passable so far as it goes, but only a few of the backstories are explored effectively, and those that are are not allowed the space to add weight in this short production. This suggests that, though written as an ensemble piece, the play sacrifices drawing out the more interesting character-arcs for having a larger cast, a trade-off which proves unjustified. There is also a good deal of artificial mystery achieved through the prolonged and unnecessary withholding of exposition, which works well in creating a paranoiac tone, but ultimately becomes frustrating by the conclusion.
‘The Free 9’ is therefore certainly a strong piece performed well by a very able cast. The thought simply cannot be avoided, however, that ‘The Free 4’ or ‘The Free 5’ would have made for a far more streamlined and engaging story.
‘The Blue Electric Wind’, by Brad Birch, performed by Collision
Drawing openly on parallels with ‘Stranger Things’, which along with its predecessors now feels like its own genre, ‘The Blue Electric Wind’ positions itself slap bang in the ‘coming-of-age meets supernatural’ story-type. We follow a group of American High School students who become suspicious when their classmates start repeating themselves unwittingly, a phenomenon they think might have something to do with the dark foreboding storms growing slowly in the atmosphere. The fate of the town – and perhaps of the world – rests on the shoulders of four teenagers thrown together in detention.
‘The Blue Electric Wind’ establishes itself well. From the first moments of convincing dialogue – which again are performed excellently by the young cast with solid US accents – the style is instantly recognisable. There’s something comforting about this as, from the very start, we know the broad outlines of the journey on which we are about to embark. A journey that won’t be too dissimilar from ‘Super 8’, ‘The Goonies’, or ‘ET’. But of course, literally playing the ‘Stranger Things’ theme tune at the top of the play is also quite self-limiting, given that it sets the audience up for a tale they have quite likely seen before, quite likely more than once. Largely, ‘The Blue Electric Wind’ does achieve such a (by now fairly standard) generic plot, in that at least some of the characters come to the sort of realisations foreseeable at the outset. But it strikes me as odd that Birch does not aim a little higher by offering a more experimental comment on what such stories say about today’s youth. There is indeed a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-style double-act that provides a sort of macro-commentary on the nature of side-characters, but this amounts to more of a cheeky wink at the audience than a justification of a by-the-numbers plot device.
The broader problem, then, is that even the main characters of the piece are altogether too passive. Sure, it’s through their eyes that we begin noticing the supernatural goings-on that form the crux of the story, but the students are about as helpless as anybody else to stop them. The only factor separating the main group from, say, any of their peers, is that they remain unaffected by the storms, due to a defect over which they have no control. In other words, unlike in the narratives to which the piece alludes, the young characters in ‘The Blue Electric Wind’ are not particularly instrumental in driving the plot, nor do they need to rely on their skillsets to overcome narrative tensions. They’re just normal kids caught up in a problem that they are ultimately not responsible for solving. This makes for a very dissatisfying resolution, which leaves an awful lot to be desired. Indeed, instead of bringing anything new to the table, ‘The Blue Electric Wind’ forgets the very part of the ‘Stranger Things’ genre which makes it so empowering for young adults: enfranchising teenagers with the power to change the world.
Collision itself does an excellent job with the material, and the young people are once again to be commended for their talents in executing a very wordy script, full of subtle character moments and intertextual references. Nonetheless, given that the company’s stated aim is to encourage “a greater dialogue about what it is to be a young person in today’s society”, they are perhaps let down a little by unadventurous writing.
The Free9: 3/5
The Blue Electric Wind: 3/5
The National Theatre is currently seeking 300 youth theatre companies and schools/colleges to take part in next year’s Connections Festival. Apply by 9th July! nationaltheatre.org.uk/connections.
Feature photograph: ‘The Blue Electric Wind’, c. Richard H. Smith