Tea And Roaches At Scabby Gills, The Basement, Bristol Old Vic, Bristol

Cultural nugget
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Bristol Old Vic's Basement project is proving a remarkable success at offering a different form of theatre for both audiences and performers. In a darkened space under the theatre's foyer, furnished with some ramshackle chairs and benches, the zero-budget shows – which run for under an hour – are staged at lunchtime and in the early evening, offering local office-workers a change from their customary swift vodka and Red in one of the surrounding bars. The benefits are mutual: bite-sized cultural nuggets for busy punters, and a chance for young writers and directors to find their feet without the pressure of long runs, expensive theatre spaces, and sneering critics cramping their creativity.

Bristol Old Vic's Basement project is proving a remarkable success at offering a different form of theatre for both audiences and performers. In a darkened space under the theatre's foyer, furnished with some ramshackle chairs and benches, the zero-budget shows – which run for under an hour – are staged at lunchtime and in the early evening, offering local office-workers a change from their customary swift vodka and Red in one of the surrounding bars. The benefits are mutual: bite-sized cultural nuggets for busy punters, and a chance for young writers and directors to find their feet without the pressure of long runs, expensive theatre spaces, and sneering critics cramping their creativity.

Now in its fifth year, the Basement has already uncovered some phenomenal talent: director Gareth Machin discovered his métier there, and has rapidly moved on to acclaimed productions in the Old Vic's main house. Playwright Toby Farrow launched his razor-sharp observational comedy in the Basement, and is now working hard on building a reputation as the Alan Bennett of the Pepsi Generation at the Royal Court.

And if there is any fairness in the world – or any appreciation of talent, for that matter – Sharon Clark should also be launching a meteoric writing career from the humble subterranean hollow of the Basement. In an environment like this, it is no surprise to find that the play is a little raggedly produced, or that the cast offers some very patchy performances. Out on the extreme fringe, this is as close as the professional theatre gets to am-dram and student shows.

Nonetheless, the quality of Clark's writing shines through the cramped set and the wobbly delivery to show that Tea and Roaches at Scabby Gills is a play that merits performance on a more "grown-up" stage. Many contemporary playwrights would find that the subject matter – a day in the life of Brendan, a detoxing junkie being cared for by his friends – offers an irresistible opportunity for sub- Trainspotting cliché. The delight is that Clark does not: instead, she offers pitch-perfect dialogue, beautifully syncopated pacing, and smooth dramatic rhythms.

Even Muppet – the politicised dope dealer to whom Brendan and his carers reveal one another's secrets – is more than merely a vital plot device to avoid the resounding artificiality of people telling one another things that they already know, like a bad American soap opera. He is an essential ingredient in a carefully constructed blend of light and dark, which is less like some of the mediocre new writing of the "I want to be Mark Ravenhill" variety, and much more akin to a 21st-century Somerset Maugham short story.

Her work to date suggests that Clark has an ear for dialogue and an ability to craft a play that sets her head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries. One can only hope that her next play is staged in a venue more in keeping with the potential she so obviously has. Meanwhile, Bristolians in the know should – like the Old Vic's more established ghosts – continue to haunt the Basement, where talent often first raises its head.

For forthcoming Basement project plays, call 0117 987 7877

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