Review: Chewing Gum Dreams / Chapel Street @ Bush Theatre

Ria Zmitrowicz (playing Kirsty) and Theo Barklem-Biggs (playing Joe). Photo ® Alex Brenner

RADAR 2012 is the second appearance of the Bush Theatre’s annual new writing festival, scanning the horizon for blips and bleeps and bringing them to the Bush stage. As Artistic Director Madani Younis says, “It’s not about sitting on your fucking arse waiting for a masterpiece to drop into your lap. You have to find it.”

RADAR is precisely what the Bush exists to do: an exciting three-week flurry of new plays, ‘sneak peek’ scratch performances, talks and debates. The Bush is also changing the way it deals with the 2,000 scripts it reads every year, intended to build longer-term relationships with writers. It is an impressive plan, designed to keep the Bush as one of the most important new writing theatres in Europe.

Two short plays were on the night we went, but there are plenty more to see. Chapel Street by Luke Barnes is a two-hander. A 14-year old and a 20-something take us out on the town, with the help of a trolley loaded with traffic cones, wigs, and inflatable toys, and we watch as their evenings gradually converge and they come together. Unfortunately, the performance style is too Kevin and Perry to convince us we are watching real people, while characters become less likeable and more caricatured as the whiskies and the Red Bulls ebb and flow.

Chewing Gum Dreams covers similar territory — teen friendships, hang-ups and stresses, joys and rejections — but with a deceptive lightness of touch that betrays the arrival of a serious new talent. The show is written and performed by Michaela Coel, with the help of nothing more than a school uniform, a chair, and a garage soundtrack.

As the chair shifts location from classroom to bedroom to the top deck of a bus, Coel is by turns casually cruel, hilariously funny, naïve, wise and vulnerable. Her play tackles some difficult themes, including sexual assault, violence, and underachievement across generations. As she puts it, “I ain’t smart enough to be somebody, but I’m smart enough to know I’m nobody”, which is pretty heartbreaking. But the big themes are expertly tucked into the life of a Hackney teenager that feels like the real deal. Directed by Ché Walker, Coel combines insight, humour and storytelling with subtle performance skills and some physical theatre coups, including a terrifying encounter with a boy staged in way that is hard to forget.

RADAR 2012 is the place to be this November, and anyone interested in new voices and untapped talent would do well to get down here for Coel’s remaining dates, as well as the many other delights on offer.

RADAR 2012 is at the Bush Theatre until 22 November.  Chewing Gum Dreams and Chapel Street both run until 13 November, tickets £8-£15.

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