The Adopt A Playwright Award scheme is such a great idea. Launched by Sofie Mason and Diana Jervis-Read in 2008, this is an OffWestEnd.com initiative which ensures that talented new writers from backgrounds that offer little – or no – encouragement or financial support do not give up after writing their first play, but “are given a fair chance to prove themselves and take their place among our culture’s storytellers.” The Award helps one playwright every year break into what can be a tough – and badly paid – profession.
It does so by gathering a family of what it describes as “Angels” to raise £8,000 to buy one writer the time, space and resources to write a new play. The recipient of the 2017 Award is Adam Hughes, for ‘Young Girl, and today I was lucky enough to attend a rehearsed reading of the play; the first time it had been heard start to finish in front of an audience. We were in the Theatre Royal Haymarket, which is hosting the Award for a ninth consecutive year – and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate location, immersed as this beautiful building is in theatrical history.
The play is directed by Anna Marsland, who was Resident Director on ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. The excellent cast comprises five actors: Colin McFarlane, Honeysuckle Weeks, Jason Merrells, Natalie Gumede and Tanya Moodie. The aim of today’s event was that, based upon the reaction of the audience (which included Off West End representatives and Adam Hughes) the play will be refined – and perfected.
I liked the play – a lot. It centres on an individual named Graham Clark, who back in the 1970s was the first black presenter of a primetime game show. A pioneer for change, this stand-up comedian and straight-talking Yorkshire man was much loved by the nation; “just thinking about him used to put a smile on my face”, reminisces one of the cast. Fast forward to 2017, however, and that has all changed. Graham is currently sat in a prison cell, having been convicted of historic sex crimes. Half the nation thinks he’s guilty; the other half doesn’t want to believe it. In the latter camp is his daughter Chloe, a television and radio host, who is determined to prove her father’s innocence. Whilst everyone else has given up on him she is adamant the truth will out.
It goes without saying that the theme of this play is highly topical and guaranteed to elicit strong emotions. The play itself asks some uncomfortable questions: would you – could you – stand by a family member or friend who had been convicted of a sex crime? How far would you go to prove a loved one’s innocence? And is it really possible for a person who achieved so much; made so many people happy and raised vast amounts of money for charity, to have committed such a crime? This latter is something that will speak to a lot of us – there was universal shock when, for example, Rolf Harris was convicted of indecent assault.
Where I found the writing particularly strong was how it addressed the impact of the above on family and friends – the toll taken, and the lasting consequences. Yet, although the subject matter is dark, the play is, in turns, witty and wry – and the nostalgic element lends some warmth to what would otherwise be a grim couple of hours. Even so, you could feel the tension stretched across the auditorium and a rapt audience as the play hurtled towards its shattering conclusion. Bearing in mind that this was “just” a read-through, it bodes very well indeed for the final version.