Browse reviews

Brighton Fringe 2024

ACT Playwriting Course

Mark Burgess, ACT Playwriting Course Lantern Theatre

Genre: Contemporary, Cue Scripts, Drama, Fringe Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton

Festival: ,

Low Down

New discoveries. It’s always exciting to see new talent emerge. Mark Burgess introduces five graduates from his short ACT Playwriting Course at the Lantern Theatre which he also directs.

Mark Burgess and his students should feel immensely satisfied. And of course the students themselves divinely dissatisfied as they develop their craft.


Directed by Mark Burgess, Set Design and Costume Design by the Cast, Lighting, Sound Production Stage and Tech Designer Erin Burbridge.



New discoveries. It’s always exciting to see new talent emerge. Mark Burgess introduces five graduates from his short ACT Playwriting Course at the Lantern Theatre which he also directs.

They’re rehearsed readings but the standard of acting’s generally high enough – with some familiar faces – to forget all that: and reveal exciting writing talent.

Naturally responses and levels of finish vary. Some are seasoned writers in other genres, or theatre-makers in other areas with decades of understanding how plays work. These things also tell. But above all is the quality of material and potential, why it’s chosen and how it’s treated.

Actors are  Daniel Finlay, Roland Hamilton (both in the first half only), Bek MacGeekie, Luke O’Dell, Catie Ridewood, Liz Stapleton, Lewis Todhunter (the last just in the final two plays).


Moon Berglind 7 Deadly Pints

“One bartender, two old flames, seven deadly sins.” As the two old flames reunite at the young woman’s suggestion, there’s an ominous commentary from Bartender Roland Hamilton. He intones passages from the Bible’s anything from Timothy to Romans. Catie Ridewood and Lewis Todhunter appear as a mute other couple, but it’s essentially a three-hander.

Flamboyant and ‘sinful’ Bek MacGeekie, is trying to win back her lover “as a friend” though you don’t think that’s just it. She has alarming tendencies. At one point she pretends a toilet’s blocked so she can steal a pint of beer, but Luke O’Dell’s upright character is having none of it.

As they re-tread their previous life, the young woman admits her sins (say cheating on her lover) and declares she’s been honest only with him. Perhaps she has. Nevertheless, faced at one point with rejection she does something that echoes exactly what she’s always done.

The Bible reading and role of the bartender might be developed here. It’s an intriguing mix, needs matching so that ‘sins’ map more closely: currently, there’s less essential connection and the bartender’s potentially supernatural or moral arbiter role muted. As it is, this works as a two-hander. The reading though gives an idea how this might be developed.

Actors perform well. O’Dell’s upright and slightly outraged, MacGeekie slinky and devious. Here, their roles are cast too starkly, hers negatively realised without that shadow of empathy bringing someone to life. But this can all change in the rewrite. Moon Berglind grasps that something huge and metaphoric arches over a soured reunion. That’s the essential step.


Strat Mastoris W.M.D. Woman of Mass Deception

We think we know this. Greece. Daniel Finlay’s Treasurer is having an uneasy time of it with Lindon-Jonson-style-bullying Agamemnon (Roland Hamilton) who brings in his 15-year-daughter. Abruptly he asks “Are you bleeding yet?”

He wants war with Troy, who both service the Greeks’ trade route by replenishing their ships, but are demanding more tax. Two in nine??? Agamemnon wants war. But they’re allies. Finlay’s superbly havering Treasurer has authority, but has to be cowed by Hamilton’s Trumpian bully. Doubtless this Agamemnon would date his daughter if he could.

Parallels with 2003’s WMD are more than neatly etched. An erstwhile ally, trade routes and trade itself needs an excuse. Mastoris is steeped in the Iliad and Odyssey, and finds an ingeniously stark new reading.

Call for Odysseus (Luke O’Dell), whom Agamemnon thinks is shirking a stratagem for causing war. But he hasn’t, as O’Dell neatly insinuates. Odysseus proposes, the Treasurer hastily modifies, and Helen (Catie Ridewood) is called for.

She’s appalled. And Ridewood makes much use of her outrage in a speech, knowing there’s only one outcome. It’s a fine speech too and Mastoris, departing here naturally from any scene to be found in Home or elsewhere, paints a compelling picture of how women and others are weaponised as pawns, excuses and certainly mass destruction.

Iphigenia (Bek MacGeekie) is first appalled to discover realpolitik: the fate of those woman outside, weaving cloth. Their menfolk butchered, they’re slaves. But she also has the last word. In a quietly blistering epilogue she narrates her own fate. If you know Homer you won’t be surprised to find she’s as garbed as she now is.

This is a first-rate piece of reinvention. It’s original, uses its sources knowingly to draw parallels with other excuses for war, and impresses with both characterisation and dramaturgy.

Admittedly Strat Mastoris has been a theatre lighting designer for 30 years, and absorbed many productions. However, this is so rooted as an imaginary that only someone with dramatic gifts could realise it.


Sam Savage The Meal

Bek MacGeekie is now Jacky, and Luke O’Dell Glen. We follow their lives over four meals: from undergraduates, to recently-married parents, through recriminations over Glen’s mother as they prosper, and after the mother’s death when much is revealed. MacGeekie as the more personally-aware woman finds in O’Dell’s defensiveness a fine foil.

Roland Hamilton as culinarily-aware Waiter 1 tries to interest first the students in anything other than Carbonara; and ultimately succeeds in the second coure or encounter. The third is a surprise. The cook’s away. And lastly he’s replaced over the years by  Catie Ridewood’s Waiter 2 causing the couple to ask where the previous waiter is. Hamilton and Ridewood make as much as can be of their parts

It’s luxury casting for 15 minutes. Storytelling would allow it, though a short play unless with a revolving cast of short plays in a single night (as here) wouldn’t.

There’s some wit and verve in the dialogue, both realist and knowing, contemporary and in its portrayal of the woman’s resentment, a finely-progressed observation. What Sam Savage will develop is the art of dialogue over being able to write nuanced conversation.

The piece ends with a fade-out truce, born of exhaustion. More dynamism’s needed in the reason why those four meals, beyond snapshots in a marriage, are chosen. It’s a fine framing device, of course, but can be made to work in more interesting ways if there’s a greater reason to set it there: a subtext or plot reveal involving Waiter 1 and the use of Waiter 2 beyond the passage of time and the great olives scam.



Charlotte Naughton Escape

An emerging rock star goes into the garden to eat some worms. Or so it seems. But we’re plunged in media res to the charmless idiocies of two wannabe Frenchified philosophes talking over being and nothingness after cheap alcohol and a whiff of spliff. Guilda (Bek MacGeekie) and  Ross (Luke O’Dell) argue with nuanced f-wit futility.

Their friend Gill (Catie Ridewood) is having none of it, off to find boyfriend Archie (Lewis Todhunter) lying in a corner, apparently near a railway track. He’s hollowed out a den; difficult to know how he exists. Why?

Ridewood and Todhunter are superb as betrayed Gill and hapless collapsed Archie. Reasons slowly emerge: Archie’s protective/abusive family. And how his parents behave with girlfriends. Gradually we understand lines like “You’re nothing like your father” as Gill urges Archie to leave these people behind.

Ridewood gets the truth of a young woman giving up part of her life, most of her love for a chimera. Todhunter exudes inwardness inflected with self-pity. Someone sensitive, yet indulging that, oblivious, using fear as a carapace. Gill’s throwing out lifelines. Archie’s letting them drop into the abyss of his past.

Just what people, in what sort of denial, is evident when Mother (an effectively vinegary Liz Stapleton) arrives to brush Gill aside. Accusations, more denials as to what happened to Gill and a confrontation with Archie, is framed by more futile attempts by the philosophes to extract Archie from his Den. Even Ross and Guilda realise something’s not right.

There’s not a word wasted by this Guardian editor. This is a play where you wonder what life, not just Charlotte Naughton will do with the characters. Like W.M.D. Woman of Mass Deception, it’s a piece ripe for further development. Dramatically it’s there though might sharpen just a notch further in developing the dramatic function of Ross and Guilda: why they matter to Gill and tangentially, to Archie. Five characters in such a short piece needs to be justified, though a radio cast (as with all these pieces) could support this.

Naughton you feel has the measure of her rich, compressed material: she’ll know not to dilate it further than its truth will take.


Isaac Freeman Medium

Finally a short work travelling further than its length. A Man (Luke O’Dell), is waiting with famed psychic Thompson (Lewis Todhunter) who questions him. They’ve worked together a while, ever since the last assistant left, well died.

They’re waiting for a man whom the Man knows as presider over the séance, but whom Thompson declares no longer believes in Thompson’s great gifts. The Man is tested for his loyalty. Will he break with those Thompson breaks? There’s points when he moves to break with Thompson. But can he? As someone said, it’s like a set of questions a Caryl Churchill character would be asked. In fact it seems to have been taken from real events. If so, Isaac Freeman’s chosen an inspired source.

It’s a quiet, compellingly solid two-hander without huge dramatic arcs but a strong sense of what it is, wielding a storytelling function of complicity and its limits. Todhunter as the inscrutable sometimes irascible Thompson, like a grand inquisitor probes the people-pleasing Man; who in O’Dell’s hands exudes the troubled disciple. Someone whose defences aren’t confident: he’s too much in awe of Thompson’s mission as well as the man. What will he choose? Fine liminal characterisation; potential for treatment perhaps.


It might prove an idea to slightly extend the break and definitely start slightly earlier than 20.00: with a Q&A from audience members at the end. Even if only half the audience stayed – it’s usually made up of supporters – this would prove an exhilarating yet gentle introduction to audience response.

Writers might wish to explore their writing, the audience reaction, and clarify what lies behind their writing It’d prove a great exercise and forum for writers and audience, and might provide useful, spontaneous feedback.

Either way, Mark Burgess and his students, as well as the cast and crew – with sound production, stage and tech designer Erin Burbridge – should feel immensely satisfied. And of course the students themselves divinely dissatisfied as they develop their craft.