The Playwrights’ Suite: Full Tilt, Canal Café Theatre, London ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Attending a staged reading of a work in progress is an experience unlike any other for an audience member. There is no set, no exits or entrances, no lighting or sound cues – although all of those such stage directions are read direct from the script. And so, in addition to the suspension of disbelief we are used to in any theatrical presentation, there is an additional layer of abstraction.

There is also the sensation of a work being born and finding its feet, possibly stumbling along the way. To criticise it unduly would feel like critiquing a toddler for their inability to run a sprint; but at the same time, there is the opportunity to see the potential of something that could blossom into something larger.

Such is the case with Sarah Pitard’s Full Tilt, the first reading in a season of US/UK play readings at the Canal Café Theatre under the umbrella title of The Playwrights Suite.

Inspired by events including the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman shot 20 young children and six staff members, Full Tilt is a gripping contemporary drama set in the aftermath of a similar, fictional incident. Pitard takes the central role of Carrie, an artist and single mother whose daughter Beth is the sole survivor of a mass shooting at a local school.

Traumatised not only by the events themselves but of the survivor’s guilt that follows, Carrie blocks herself and her daughter off from a world in which 24-hour news crews are camped on their doorsteps. Despite the well-meaning efforts of her boyfriend, mother and therapist, Carrie’s tendency is to push them away. Thrown in to the mix is her complicated relationship with her sister Lilith, a former junkie who found God when rehabilitating and who is now a Wesleyan pastor.

Of all the relationships Carrie has, the most fun is with her strident, effervescent mother Ruby, a woman whose no-nonsense attitude to life occasionally surfaces in the psyches of her daughters. But it is the appearance of Lilith that not only unlocks some of the burden Carrie has been carrying with her all her life, but which does the same to the heart of Pitard’s play. Cherise Silvestri’s Lilith is as much a mess of contradictions as her sister, but who has a much more focussed attitude to life in ways that exacerbate the sibling dynamic.

Later events in the second act, in which Carrie’s family fear what her mental state might possibly have led her to, does not feel anywhere near as solid as the taut first half. But there is a sense of peril that keeps the play’s tension levels always heading in the right direction.

There are several structural, narrative and character flaws in the piece as it is, which in a finished, staged production would be worth dwelling on more. The advantage with the Playwrights Suite set up is that the entire audience is invited to stay on for a development discussion afterwards. To share in that part of a play’s process is a rare privilege, and one that would not be possible were what is being read on stage completely cut and dried.

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