Shortlist
  • By Mel Evans
  • |
  • 16th Aug 2023
  • |
  • ★★★★★

Shortlist is a two-hander written by Brian Parks, directed by Margarett Perry, performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Matthew Boston.

The play is an entertaining examination of the fragility of the human ego. One of the highlights of my Fringe this year.

It’s an absurdist comedy about two writers who find themselves on the shortlist of a literary prize. In a series of brief, rapid scenes, they keep bumping into each other – accidentally meeting in bookshops, at book signings, at launches and at parties.

And they hate each other!

This is a long-standing professional rivalry, but they hate each other with a visceral revulsion that can only be born out of self-loathing. To cover this, they both present highly inflated opinions of themselves. And because one writer tends to write populist fiction that sells well and the other writes critically acclaimed fiction that nobody wants to read – the self-aggrandisement of both authors each has a different flavour. They indulge in increasingly ridiculous hyperbole about themselves and their own talents, while dredging the bottom of the barrel, for bitter invectives, and often vicious jibes to throw at the other.

At one point, they hear of a literary superstition that previous winners of the prize have always visited the grave of a particular renowned author before the prize is announced. They wonder if visiting the grave would increase their chances of winning. Publicly, they both denounce this as empty superstition. But both writers, hoping that their offering to the competition might be boosted by some supernatural help, secretly head towards the grave to pay homage. They bump into each other, of course, and further ridicule and badinage ensues, and then the pair somehow get lost, and are in danger of being late for the prize-giving ceremony itself. Both writers panic, and this gives way to vulnerability and to some rare moments of mutual affection and dependence. And thus we begin to see the full complexity of this love-hate relationship.

After a while, we become aware of how ridiculous it is, that two people who hate each other so much should end up (albeit accidentally) spending so much time in each other’s company. In a room full of crowded people, they will always gravitate towards each other. But why? Is it that they are constantly seeking the killer blow - the cut down to end all cutdowns, the witticism to trump all witticisms? Or is it that projecting our own failures onto another person enables us to somehow feel successful by comparison? After all, for one person to win, someone else has to lose. And this becomes an ugly fight. Or is it that we are drawn towards people we hate because they often present us with an accurate reflection of our own self-worth?

In their race to the top, the writers unwittingly find themselves at the bottom. And like the would-be high-status characters in so many plays who attempt the dizzy heights of hierarchy, success and fortune, it’s only when they are brought cruelly crashing down that they learn who they really are.

There are many questions to ponder here, and this stylised absurdist form removes us from the familiar trappings of realism and is the perfect vehicle to make us think.

Parks writes beautifully – with pace and humour. He shows both fondness and disdain for his own characters. The play is also very clever. Much of the writing is about writing itself. It’s full of quick one-liners and retorts. The tools of the writer - paragraphs, semi colons, adverbs, adjectives, indentations, and of course, the mighty pen - become weaponised in the fracas.

Matthew Boston and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams rise to the challenges of the text with perfect timing, emotional dexterity and lots of energy. And for a play that is so text-orientated, it is surprisingly physical. Under the guiding hand of director Margarett Perry, both actors throw themselves around the stage as desperation escalates into farce.

The play is an entertaining examination of the fragility of the human ego. One of the highlights of my Fringe this year.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Mel Evans

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Shortlist

★★★★★
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Since you’re here…

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Two enemy novelists duel for the ultimate prize in a fast-paced, war-of-the-words comedy. Multiple Fringe First-winning playwright Brian Parks plunges into the writing world with a Withnail-esque joust between literature's two sharpest pens. Year after year, Higgins and Houghton find themselves pitched against each other on the shortlist for literature's number-one title, never winning. But this year is different, each primed to strike and finally grab it. All that stands in their way is each other. A world premiere directed by Fringe First winner Margarett Perry, starring Matthew Boston and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams. 'A refreshingly mischievous, inventive author' (Times).

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