Bright / Playing Fields, Soho Theatre, London

Two bright young things

Rhoda Koenig
Wednesday 30 October 2002 01:00

Developed and commissioned by the Soho Young Writers Programme, these two 90-minute first plays by and about young women concern harsh confrontations with reality. In Bright, 20-year-old Clair is arrested and sectioned after threatening a man in the street with a martial-arts sword. The boredom, frustration and humiliation of being in hospital make her mental state worse, and, after several unsuccessful attempts to leave, she is finally released only when her bed is needed for a more acute case. In Playing Fields, Thyme, 16, finds herself pregnant from a single act of intercourse with another teenager who afterward wants nothing to do with her.

Polly Wiseman (Bright) and Neela Dolezalova, herself only 16 when she wrote her play, both create appealing, believable characters whose dialogue is spiky, touching, and realistic. Wiseman, though, falters with the two older women in her play: her doctor and houseman sound like teenagers, especially the latter, with her clichéd idealism: "I want to be somewhere where I can feel that I'm making a difference''; "I hate colluding with a regime that simply wants people numb and dumb.''

It is good to see new writers concerned with social issues (in Playing Fields, the council has sold the land of the title, so the children, lacking an outlet for their energy, turn to mischief), but the treatment of these is vague and lacks conflict; the fault lies with people who are unnamed and offstage. In Bright, "the old boys in their ivory consulting rooms''. The ending, however, seems to say the problem is simply lack of money.

Clair also lacks definition, to the point that she often seems at times only a vehicle for Wiseman's naive attitude toward the treatment of mental illness: "To everyone who is too bright,'' she dedicates her play. "Don't let the bastards grind you down. Keep on shining!'' There is one line in Bright that suggests a play I would rather have seen than this attack on "the system''. When Clair tells a male patient to stop his sexual attentions, he denies them, saying, "I know what it's like in your head at the minute. You don't know what's real and what's not.'' This expression of solicitude as a cover for exploitation is a chilling and comic parallel of the way officially sane men talk to women.

Dolezalova's play has more charm, and her characters are better differentiated. She also touchingly, if a bit obviously, shows that Thyme's lover doesn't realise he is repeating the behaviour of his brutal father, and, like him, blames it on the woman he is mistreating. But, like Wiseman, her play lacks dramatic movement, its only action the seduction scene and Thyme's subsequent announcement of her plight – hardly a surprise since, over the coupling, a film is shown of wriggling spermatozoa. This is an idea that the playwright should have been talked out of, as well as the notion of calling the boy Justin.

Directed by Paul Jepson and Lisa Goldman respectively, the plays have such likeable performers as Phoebe Thomas (Thyme) and Jimmy Akingbola as her black cousin, more cheerful and responsible than the others but also angry at the mess created by a selfish and neglectful adult world.

Next time, perhaps, the authors will show these young people translating their anger into action rather than mere self-expression.

To 2 Nov (020-7478 0100)

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