Two nights ago  I went to the Octagon Theatre Studio to see “The House in Sofia with a Map of Its Surroundings” by Ian Townsend, which was part of the Top 5 Play Readings Festival. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s an exciting opportunity to hear a group of actors read through five plays that are either brand new or have only have only been aired once. Of course you don’t have the bells and whistles: scenery, costumes or effects, but it’s a wonderful chance to see a play stripped right back to the script and get an insight into the development process.

I am not a theatre buff, just an average person who enjoys going to the theatre, so my take on it doesn’t come with any fancy terminology or technical insights, I’m afraid – just a reflection on whether it was a good night out or not! As well as being completely free to attend, it was a nice touch that the audience was also offered a complimentary interval drink, in return for feedback.

The director introduced the cast, who were sitting on a row of chairs facing the audience, and there were just a couple of props: table, chairs, wheelchair and laptops to help set the scene(s). We were told that the actors had only seen the script for the first time at 10.30am yesterday morning, so what they brought together in just a few hours was really impressive.

The play was about a group of people in three different settings: a nurse and her husband, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer; a father and son, who has withdrawn to his room following the death of his mother, and a 19 year old girl who self-harms. Their stories unfold and intertwine as the play goes on, with a number of surprisingly intimate revelations, and we see how they have been damaged by past relationships and are reluctant, or unsure of how, to move on.

Despite the rather grim subject matter, there was actually quite a lot of surprising humour in the piece, especially from the character of the husband, Michael, played expertly and with great timing, by Arthur Bostrom. Kathy Jamieson, as his wife Eve, gave a confident and assured performance, being the one that linked together all the disparate characters.

The play worked well in this format, as the characters gave short monologues that filled in a lot of the back stories and additional detail. In fact, with a little tweaking, I thought it actually might work fairly well as a radio play. On the whole the characters and situations were quite believable, if a little predictable, with the character of the young lad, for me, being the least convincing. On the whole, however, I thought it moved along at a steady pace, kept my attention well, was easy to follow and certainly entertaining – what more can you ask really?

The writer, Ian Townsend, and the cast took part in a short feedback/Q&A session afterwards, which really added to the experience as Ian talked about how the play had developed and how it might change again, having seen it actually being read/performed. It really made me think about the art of the writer, actors and director, and of how all the parts have to come together, including the technical aspects, in order to bring a play to the stage. I would definitely recommend it as a rewarding and interesting way to spend an evening, rather than just letting television wash over you! The fact that it was free (although booking is recommended) was a delightful bonus.

This was the second play in the festival, with three more still to come. Don’t miss a chance to catch at least one of them. Full info and booking details here.