Chewing Gum Dreams at the Bush Theatre

On Tuesday I went to see my friend Luke’s play, Chapel Street as part of the Radar Festival at the Bush. It was double billed with a piece called Chewing Gum Dreams, a monologue written and performed by Michaela Cole. Two plays, fifteen quid. Top drawer value.

Whilst I’ve been devouring as many monologues as I can of late, I didn’t really know anything about Chewing Gum Dreams, no review, no word of mouth, no nothing, aside from having briefly scanned the blurb. Hackney. Black school girl. Probably some woe?

Having seen it, I’m glad my knowledge was so vague because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of being surprised by this seriously impressive piece of work. It’s smart, compelling and an absolute joy to watch.

The writing was tight (except, perhaps, that it seemed to end on a strange note – felt like there was another fifteen minutes to come) but what really struck me about the performance was Cole’s precise command of her physicality, using it to clearly define the myriad characters that she slipped between and well as making it a base for a lot of the comedy. As an overly wordy writer whose approach to successful scrawling is predicated on verbal wit, I saw just how much you can get if you hack back the writing and develop the the work with an actor, trusting them to bring themselves into the piece. Of course, since Cole wrote and performed, it was likely a smoother process for her, but still a lesson to bear in mind as I begin writing True Brits properly next month. 

So in short, here are my learnings:

  • Consider uses of silence. When are they most effective? What’s the best way to demonstrate them in a script? (An ellipsis, a “pause” direction, a line space?) Readability, especially in the first stages of development is important.
  • Minimal props can be worked to do a lot for you. Cole created wholly different spaces, bursting from one scene to the next, using just a chair and changes of lighting.
  • Don’t jump the narrative around too much and don’t introduce too many characters and once (and when you do, make sure the performer has given them all a distinct visual and vocal identity – they are, effectively, playing many characters even if it’s through one character’s voice.)
  • Never doubt the effectiveness of the Rule of Three.  It is the Queen of Writing Technique.
  • Cut, cut and cut again.

After the plays had finished and the Bush closed both its toilets and its bar, I went to the pub across the road and met a few other Hightide writers, including Vickie Donoghue, writer of Mudlarks who regaled me with her Grays/Dartford musings (“Dartford is like the Shelbyville to Grays’ Springfield.”). A couple of the Mudlarks actors were there, so I took the opportunity to ask them about performances and transfers, specifically how it felt to do more or less the same play in three markedly different spaces (An attic, an above-a-pub space, a traverse stage). I thought they might say they loved the Bush most of all, it being the largest and most prestigious space, but it turns out their favourite performances were the first ones at the Hightide Festival, though this was mostly due to the buzz around the piece rather than because of the space itself.

Anyway, if you’d like to see Chewing Gum Dreams, there’s a free performance at the Cottesloe, part of the National Theatre, at 11.30 A.M. on Friday 23rd of November. If you can make it, I urge you to pop along – maybe an early lunch? – I promise it’s worth your hour.

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