THEATRE / So why can't Ron Moody play Moses?: Phil Setren has spent months playing agony uncle to six writers anxious for success in the New Play Festival. Sarah Hemming reports

Click to follow
ANYONE visiting the London New Play Festival office at Sadler's Wells Theatre gets an inkling of how Rebecca Stephens felt last week. The signs pointing upwards start at the stage door and just keep going up - past the dressing room (ladies' chorus), past the dressing room (gentlemen's chorus), past the rehearsal rooms, past the ballet studio, until finally the stairs run out. 'Through there,' says a weary looking woman behind a desk, indicating a door that says 'EMERGENCY EXIT' and has no handle. It looks very like the way out on to the roof.

It is the way out on to the roof. The LNPF office is little more than a corridor offering grand vistas of London and very little space. It's crammed with people and ringing phones. 'NORMALITY AUDITIONS PLEASE TAKE A SEAT' reads a notice - rather challengingly, since there aren't many seats. A 2ft pile of Spotlight, the casting directory, teeters on the edge of a desk. On the phone someone is saying, 'I knew something was wrong in my waters . . .'

'I'm afraid it's rather a broom closet,' says Phil Setren, the festival director, apologetically. The phone under my chair rings. Someone answers it: 'London Fringe Awards.' 'We share the office with the London Fringe Awards,' explains Setren. 'It got rather crowded when they were doing the awards last week.'

We go out on to the roof. This year's LNPF, the fifth, offers 14 new plays in three weeks (five performances a day), staged at the Old Red Lion. 'Usually the office gets really crowded at ten o'clock and the phone starts ringing,' says Setren. 'All requests come in here: Can a designer have an elevation of the Old Red Lion? Who's available to play this part? Where are the writers going to stay? Our budget for each production is only pounds 100, so everything has to be a donation. Our phones never stop ringing. There are wigs we have to find - one of the plays has two Karen Carpenter lookalikes; there's a silver palm tree . . .'

This year's festival has six plays by first-time playwrights, not all of whom are completely versed in the ways of theatre. 'There's one play about a cartoonist who creates this enormous iron which goes around flattening people,' says Setren. 'It has a lot of demands: there's a female cactus, a 10ft-high ball of fluff, a toothless shark - and people get ironed on stage. Great if you can do it.

'We have another writer whose play was originally set in a hamburger bar, then he changed it to a pizza bar, then back to a hamburger bar, then back to a pizza bar. It came to the time when we had to put the brochure together and he had to decide. It's listed as a pizza bar in the brochure - and it's going to be a burger bar on stage. You eventually have to say to him gently, but firmly, 'Joe, no one in your play buys a slice of pizza or a hamburger . . .' '

'Excuse me,' says a man, walking on to the roof. 'Could we have that chair you're sitting on? We need it for the set.' 'Sure,' says Setren, sitting on the tarmac. 'Then there's Brian Devlin,' he continues. 'He has really adventurous ideas, but his typewriter doesn't have apostrophes, only 7s, and he runs on all his sentences. Now you can't give a script like that to an actor. And Cecily Bomberg, writer of Moses Napoleon - she really wanted Ron Moody to play the part of Moses. It's great to have those aspirations.'

Far from having Ron Moody in the central part, Moses Napoleon had no one until this morning. The original actor dropped out; with two weeks to go, he has just been replaced. Sean O'Connor, directing the play, has suffered. 'I've got a spot on the back of my head and I think it's stress-related. But there's no point in panicking because it gets you nowhere. I think it's sorted out now - if it's not sorted out, I'm on the next train to Bridlington.'

Back in the office there are now more people. The American playwright Wendy Hammond arrives to add some rewrites to her script. On the phone someone is saying, 'But he left this number when he rang five minutes ago . . .' There is a debate about the church in which Moses Napoleon is being rehearsed: Catholic or Protestant? The amount of rehearsal time depends on the number of services.

This year's festival involves 150 people, all of whom have to be accommodated. 'We have 10 rehearsals going on at the moment in seven different buildings,' says the producer Cathy McMahon. 'Yesterday we had two groups in rooms above a pub - one group needs to have this big fight scene where the whole set gets smashed. But they couldn't get the set in through the doors, so I had to move them to somewhere else - they got down there and that was double- booked. So I'm on the phone again.

'Today, I dropped off posters and the poster guys weren't there and they said specifically, 'Get there between 10 and 12.' So I'm on the phone to them. Then we've got a double booking with some schoolkids who are coming in for the children's show in Week 1. We've already got 59 kids going, and another 31 came through the Old Red Lion box-office. Kids are small - maybe we can fit them in.'

On the typewriter, the playwright is typing, 'I never knew a person could cry so much.' A pale man arrives gingerly carrying a paper bag. 'Your design meeting is on the roof,' says Setren. The man withdraws a tiny cardboard set from the bag and places it carefully on the roof. An anxious group huddles around it. On the phone someone is saying, 'Well, she said she'd deliver them and then she just disappeared . . .'

'You picked a quiet day,' says Mark Raybould, the technical director. 'Yesterday there were four people lined up on that roof waiting to jump. All the tools broke down, the timber merchants delivered the wrong timber, the sound designer resigned and one actress was in casualty.' Raybould is in charge of co- ordinating the technical side, but he spends most of his time worrying about wood. 'The worst nightmare is having all 14 sets built at various places across the country and then trying to get them all together on one day. You're working with a lot of unknown quantities who say, 'I can do that,' and when it comes down to it, they can't. Plywood is pounds 20 a sheet and they say, 'Oh, we didn't cut it properly, could we have some more?' '

'Could we read through these rewrites?' asks Wendy Hammond, the playwright from New York. 'All these English accents in my ears - I'm not sure if I've written them in the right vernacular.' She and Setren start reading highly- charged dialogue outside. On the phone someone is saying, 'I think there's been a misunderstanding. I thought I'd booked the two rooms for two weeks. Well, we'll need to move them up to the roof or something . . .'

The London New Play Festival opens today at the Old Red Lion, London EC1, and runs to 20 June (071-837 7816)

(Photograph omitted)