Strange Town is an Edinburgh-based company which offers opportunities for young people between the ages of five and 25 to fulfil their creative potential though drama and performance. Now well-established within Edinburgh’s theatre community, this includes the opportunity to perform on the stage of the Traverse, the city’s self-declared theatre of new writing.
It’s rare indeed to see any show with a cast of 27 (!) and director Debs Hahn does a good job of choreographing this ensemble from one scene to the next.
What Next? is the first of a double bill of one-act plays created by the playwright Alan Gordon for – and with contributions from – Strange Town’s older performers. Gordon himself is one of the Traverse 50 – a group of 50 playwrights mentored by the Traverse theatre during its 50th anniversary year in 2013. So there’s definitely a lot of potential here. Yet, despite some thematic similarities, What Next? proves to be a somewhat lesser work compared with the following play, What Now?
For starters, What Next? is an all-too-unsubtle play about the issue of immigration, viewed through the prism of a school which has recently been forced to take in a significant number of pupils from one of their neighbours. While the newbies try to make friends, and negotiate existing relationships, the tensions caused by the perceived stretching of the school’s resources, are growing. “We have our ways, and you have to fit in,” one of the new arrivals is told by the charismatic (though increasingly tarnished) head boy Ziggy (Lucas McGregor). The metaphor is obvious. Perhaps too obvious.
The play begins, however, with a scream – and the apparent death of new boy Nathan; what follows is an increasingly strained succession of flash-backs – each introduced by the dead boy (a focused Marcus Calderon, who need only to work on his voice projection to really be something special) as a means to highlight a different suspect. The problem with this is that Nathan knows full well who killed him – he was there, after all. Holding back this “final reveal” only gives the killer’s identity more prominence than it dramatically deserves, given that the play’s focus is clearly on the issues, not the people.
Admittedly, there’s much to enjoy – many of the characterisations are sharply written and performed, and there were plenty of laughs, not least for the girl stressed out by being expected to do all her exams revision while still maintaining her online presence.
It’s rare indeed to see any show with a cast of 27 (!) and director Debs Hahn does a good job of choreographing this ensemble from one scene to the next. Nevertheless, not everyone can have their time in the spotlight and even those who do have essentially just a short cameo in which to make any impression. As a result, What Next? feels more like a succession of scenes than a honed narrative with a firm sense of direction, which alas robs its final moments of the real impact they could have had.