Theatre reviews: Write-Off | Class Act

Portraying an explosive encounter between an ageing thriller writer and his ambitious young sensitivity reader, Aodhan Gallagher’s Write-Off is a formidable first play about one of the burning issues of our time, writes Joyce McMillan

Write-Off, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Class Act, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

These days, even Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame has a sensitivity reader, invited by his publisher to cast an eye over his handling of minorities long marginalised from mainstream fiction, or stereotyped by consistently negative portrayals. For ageing thriller writer Freddie, though, the very idea is an outrage to his creative freedom, and to his right to write imaginatively about straight male (or female) characters, who are, it turns out, nothing like himself; and Aodhan Gallagher’s searing Play, Pie And Pint debut drama Write-Off revolves around the explosive encounter between Freddie and young Ben, a promising postgraduate student who has been recommended to him as a possible reader.

Bailey Newsome and Richard Conlon in Write-Off PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanBailey Newsome and Richard Conlon in Write-Off PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Bailey Newsome and Richard Conlon in Write-Off PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

To say that Freddie – superbly brought to life by Richard Conlon – is not an instantly likeable character is to understate the case. His rudeness to Ben is breathtaking and cruel, and his arrogant dismissal of the “politically correct” sensitivity agenda the stuff of a thousand predictable right-wing opinion pieces.

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Yet Ben, too, soon proves to be no angel, but rather an ambitious youth with a ruthless streak and a novel to promote; and it’s only when the conversation begins to edge towards their experience as gay men of very different generations – Ben’s eager assertion of gay equality and rights, Freddie’s life scarred and embittered by his experience as a young gay man in Edinburgh during the 1980s AIDS pandemic – that some basis for a tentative understanding begins to emerge, from the smoking ruins of their confrontation.

As young Ben, Bailey Newsome fully matches the intensity and subtlety of Richard Conlon’s performance as Freddie; and at the end of Irene Macdougall’s pitch-perfect production, the audience are left briefly stunned by a formidable first play about one of the burning issues of our time, before the roar of applause that greets the two actors, as they emerge from the ashes.

At the Traverse, meanwhile, the theatre’s astonishing Class Act project – plays by secondary-school-age young writers, performed by top-flight professional actors – celebrates its remarkable 31st year with a slick, fast-moving and mind-blowing sequence of 24 bite-sized new plays and films, written this year by students from Craigmount, Craigroyston, Trinity and Tynecastle schools in Edinburgh, and by young people from Intercultural Youth Scotland.

Co-ordinated by co-directors Robbie Gordon and Eve Nicol, along with with an ace team of designers, sound designers, animators and filmmakers, the plays are framed as a series of visits to parallel universes, including one in which the Cuban missile crisis develops into a full-blown war, and sometimes draw more on the imagery of marvel movies and online games than the dull stuff of real life. There are guns, heists and even bags of live uranium, as well as – on film – the odd horror-inflected zombie story.

For myself, I preferred the sharp edge of family reality in River Drysdale’s Christmas Tree Play, the strange and searching quality of Eclipse – a play about religious belief by Chelsea Quintero Ramirez and Francesca Gibson – or the shrewd self-awareness of April McLeod’s clever film about stalking, Dear Diary; and it’s hard to resist the gentle gay love story of The Promise, by Megan Murray, Kaiya Munro-Fraser, Becca North and Max Hegney, which tops and tails the evening.

Yet the sheer variety of plays and styles on offer is exhilarating in itself; as is the fantastic skill of a nine-strong cast – led by Chloe-Ann Tylor, Hannah Donaldson, Laura Lovemore, Karen Fishwick and Martin Donaghy, among others – who switch genres and universes at warp speed, to create a 110-minute evening of theatre as witty and entertaining as it is thoughtful and intense.

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Write-Off is at Oran Mor until 18 March, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 21-25 March. Class Act 2023 continues in Aberdeen and Ayr later this year, with programmes of plays written by young people there.