I have been meaning to add a page about my scriptwriting and a post about An Open Book to this website for a year now. Better late than never, I suppose!
In May 2022, my full-length play An Open Book ran for five nights in Cambridge, UK, at the Corpus Playroom. The play was selected for production by the ADC Theatre and was funded by St John’s College’s theatre society The Lady Margaret Players – which was especially fitting and delightful given An Open Book is in fact a gentle comedy about fictitious academics at St John’s College. I also wrote it in nine days flat (deadlines can have that effect on a person), so I’m still slightly shocked it even got off the ground!
The script for An Open Book has since been added to the British Library’s Modern Playscripts collection.
The play’s blurb is as follows:
“Professor Ernest Gray stands for academic rigour, discipline, and truth. He avoids frays on Twitter. His moral backbone is widely considered to be as inflexible as a punting pole. Yet when a St John’s College librarian – half-mad with dreams of power, conquest, and chapel-to-library conversion schemes – uncovers scandalous relics from his wild youth as a Master’s student, Ernest is forced into quandary. Does he bend to blackmail to save his reputation and his (almost-existent) love life? Or does he dare to be an open book?”
One local paper described An Open Book as “a sparkling gem of a play” and “metatheatre at its finest”. Audience members seemed to have a good time – there was lots of laughter (thank goodness! I was hoping people would enjoy themselves).
That said, one reviewer for another local paper wasn’t such a fan, sadly – and it’s not much fun being dragged on the internet, especially by someone who misunderstood and misrepresented the play’s light, unserious vibe (not to mention my own intentions!). The reviewer turned out to be a St John’s College student who thought I was slandering the college, which is a pity because nothing could be further from the truth. The play was a farce, and the college itself was funding it – a testament to St John’s College’s sense of humour and spirit of fun. Alas! One cannot please everyone. On the plus side, part of me does feel rather inspired to write a play about review culture now – and about the fragile egos of delicate creatives…
On that note – having reviewed books and theatre extensively myself – I decided something quite fun would be to employ my own reviewing skills and write an ambivalent review about An Open Book myself, capturing both its triumphs and shortcomings. There’s no paying outlet for such pieces of writing – but I do hope you enjoy it. The play itself, incidentally, was written with a similar sort of humour and spirit! So if you really want to drag this play in style: here’s how it’s done 😉
Meta and farcical, An Open Book uncovers pride in shortfalls
All stories are, to an extent, tapestries of tales that precede them. Is it acceptable, therefore, for new work to be unoriginal? And how does one determine originality?
An Open Book, staged by Cambridge’s ADC Theatre in May 2022, explores these questions both through plot and via its charms and limitations as a piece of theatre. Purportedly a Wildean farce, the play is set in modern-day Cambridge and explores the follies and vices of fictitious academics – and, in particular, of Professor Ernest Gray.
For those who skipped the readings, here’s the SparkNotes equivalent. Frazzled literatus Ernest, like all comedy protagonists verging on reputational catastrophe, supposedly has nothing to hide. He advocates for rigour. He avoids Twitter spats. His moral backbone is widely deemed as inflexible as a punting pole. Consequently, when a St John’s College librarian – riddled with dreams of power, conquest, and chapel-to-library conversion schemes – unearths scandalous relics from his student years, Ernest finds himself in quandary. Does he submit to blackmail to save his reputation and his (almost existent) love life? Or does he dare be an open book?
Directed by Katie Kasperson, this student production is performed in the Corpus Playroom, a modest space a mere cobblestone’s throw from the play’s real-life university setting. Encountering a slice of the establishment recreated here feels subversive and meta. Kasperson keeps set and lighting simple, which proves effective as it focuses attention on the actors. The production is also elevated through selected props, such as a villainously flourished scroll on which Ernest’s sins are enumerated (this play takes bibliographic practice seriously).
The production is clearly run on a shoestring budget – yet what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in soul. Gabriel Jones turns in a top-mark performance as Ernest, superbly capturing the character’s mix of self-delusion, pomposity, and insecurity. His tragicomic delivery of Macbeth soliloquies, which puncture the script at the slightest hint of seriousness, is pitch perfect. Isabelle Duffy-Cross, Isabella Bottle, and Freya Cowan offer compelling performances as a student, a faculty love interest, and the Master of St John’s respectively, conveying each character’s personal dilemmas in ways that add depth to comical scenes.
It is Liv Bouton, however, who steals the show with their interpretation of the malevolent librarian – Christian name ‘Charybdis’. Their every entrance meets with audience delight and fellow characters’ dismay, and they corroborate with panache the accusation that they are a “myopically bibliophilic, sterility-obsessed creature with paper-thin compassion”. Each to their own: personally, in no small part thanks to Bouton’s gloriously wrathful stage presence and memorable fit of rage over a Nokia ringtone, I found the character’s commitment to rob all others blind to be ultimately almost endearing.
So where is the catch? The truth is that although this play is fun, it is nothing new. An Open Book is commendable less for being a fresh creation than for being the theatrical equivalent of leftovers one happily reheats in the microwave. Its components are enjoyable, yet familiar to the point that one questions whether developing a more adventurous palette is overdue. Moreover, while the play touches upon questions of privilege, performance, and originality in academia, it exists less to investigate these issues than to offer a tweed-upholstered vehicle for snappy dialogue.
Granted, being challenging is not the only metric by which to measure stories’ success. To its credit, An Open Book provides a fun night out. To criticise its unoriginality is also to play into its commentary on invention: much of the plot revolves around unintended plagiarism and the question of whether one can ever be wholly original. The play effectively asks its audience: in a world of stories, is creating a pastiche wrong – and how far should one go in acknowledging sources of inspiration?
An Open Book seeks to temper these difficult questions through humour. Yet when staging a play that leans on wit, it helps for this wit to be Wildean – and in this case, the writer appears to have shot for the moon but fallen amid a distinctly low-lying constellation. While the dialogue occasionally shines (“you’re a fine man, Ernest – but only if one measures your worth in overdue library books”), it also frequently snowballs into excessive verbosity. The concentration required to follow it is not always worth the effort.
As Wilde – and more recently, Lizzo – once expressed, to speak the truth is a painful thing. Yet as the writer of An Open Book, I am at peace with acknowledging that the only traits Wilde and I share are vanity, Irish heritage, being gayer than anticipated, and great taste in velvet jackets. When it comes to originality – as Ernest, too, discovers – the truth must always out. Besides: if I cannot tell the truth about this play’s limitations, who can?
Much love – and carry on creating,