I know there is a fair amount of debate around the usefulness of scratch culture. Chris Goode has gone on record to attack (albeit with a careful and nuanced set of objections) the prevailing scratch culture, and Mike Bartlett in an earlier interview on TheatreVoice made many of the same points about "scratch" potentially offering so much of a safety net that writers need not commit to their work, and also of running the risk of drowning in feedback forms and the sort of well-intentioned dramaturgical advice that can leave plays utterly stripped of the initial spark that made them worth writing in the first place.
That said, I’m real sucker for experimental works-in-progress and readings. All the more so when they constitute a significant programming decision on the part of one of London’s foremost producing theatres. Whatever you think of any given individual play, or about the politics of scratch, it is hard to deny that Dominic Cooke’s first six months at the court have been little short of miraculous.
Wednesday’s offering was a double bill of fragments from two potentially longer, larger, as-yet-unfinished works - one by long-standing Royal Court writer Leo Butler, who teaches on the Court’s Young Writers Programme and whose first professional play was staged at the theatre several years back, and the other by one half of The Right Size: Sean Foley.
In terms of a double bill it is hard to imagine a greater distance between two pieces: Butler’s Airbag - the result of a collaboration between him and the Nigerian choreographer Anthony Odey - is a perplexing series of fragments in which an old lady in sheltered accommodation describes seeing a number of gorillas outside her window, intercut with spectacular and vigorous displays of Nigerian dance, accompanied by tribal drumming and continually underscored by a slow heartbeat sound effect. Sean Foley’s A Liability, by contrast, offers short scenes from a potentially longer light comedy about a man who can stop telling the truth. It’s hardly an original premise (the Jim Carrey Liar Liar, for starters, apparently), but curiously the hardly-staged reading of half-an-hour’s worth of material served what there was very well indeed. With its jaunty live guitar breaks between scenes and little songs to move the action along, it worked very well as a half-hour radio comedy.
It’s no surprise that Foley writes a good comedy - he is a comedy writer and performer, after all - although this was less in the clownish vein of The Right Size and more like, well, writing. Directed by Terry Johnson, it is quite easy to imagine A Liability morphing into a slick West End product. This would be a shame, as much of its charm derived from its lo-fi production values, which chimed well with much of the more whimsical comedy - the play opened with its main character (played by Sean Foley himself) being gradually drawn into a conversation with a woman on the tube’s teddy bear.
Of the two pieces, Airbag was the more inconclusive experience. The juxtaposition of the rich imagery of the old woman’s speech - much of it couched in uncomfortably racist terminology concerning the size, physique and colour of the “gorillas” she can see - when interspersed with sequences of African dancers opened up a strand of inquiry which remained explicitly unaddressed throughout. Talking to Leo afterwards, he agreed that the tension was deliberate, and that in the pieces that we saw, it wasn’t directly addressed. In fact, talking to him clarified a lot of things about the piece for me, about which I had previously been unsure. It also offered an insight into how he saw the piece developing. It sounds like it could turn out to be a really exciting project, and quite unlike anything else the Court has staged. Even if it doesn’t get picked up for further development, a small number of people can at least claim to have seen a piece of partially dance-based theatre at the Royal Court - something unimaginable 12 months ago.