Review: Top 40 Week 1 – Short+Sweet Dubai 2017

Review: Top 40 Week 1 – Short+Sweet Dubai 2017


Short+Sweet came roaring back last night to a full house, and with an overall decent evening of theatre. Braving a surprisingly blustery chill outside, the excitement and energy inside kept the audience a bit warm. (Too bad The Junction can’t serve drinks… it might have been a bit warmer.)

Being the 5th incarnation of a popular and successful festival, it is difficult to not compare year-on-year and event-on-event. Previous Top 40 evenings have seen some big flops alongside beautifully enthralling art. But, instead of comparing, it is best to keep those previous years as a frame of reference, understanding that, at its core, Short+Sweet is about the love of theatre, it is about bringing together disparate groups that don’t often meet on a stage. The newbie and the experienced thesp can share a stage. A first script from a new writer can appear next to a piece written by a prolific and accomplished writer.

With that understanding of Short+Sweet in mind, this night of theatre stands up on its own. It was actually a good evening.

Smile for the Camera at tech

Smile for the Camera at tech rehearsal / Image Credit: Daniel Murphy

The Composition

The evening felt crafted, showing an expert assemblage by Festival Director Liz Hadaway of the 10 shorts, which had rhythm and flow, despite not being at all related to each other. Less convincing pieces were typically followed by stronger performances. Both acts were balanced, having strong plays and weaker plays (but not flops) in each.

It felt as if the evening seemed to prefer comedy over drama, as Short+Sweet is often wont to do.  But, a quick count shows five straight-up comedies (exactly half), yet many of the dramas (and the thriller) had moments of levity which kept an air of positivity throughout the event.

A measure of whether a festival of shorts is going well is whether one dreads returning after the intermission or patiently awaits the gong of the bell. Well, gong it was.

On top of it, technical seemed to be mostly on cue, with very few noticeable tech issues. (Rule of tech: Go unnoticed. Be forgotten. If noticed, never forgiven.) The lighting design seemed well-thought out and constructed for the evening. A blackbox has its lighting limitations, especially with 10+ plays to design for, however, that did not seem to factor here.

Operationally: time was more-or-less kept to. It is a hallmark of Constellation and Short+Sweet Dubai that you will start on time and end with time to get yourself home.

The Verdict

If you can set aside the “Cats”-like notion of theatre for a moment, if you can set aside the “spectacle” theatre, then go to see Short+Sweet. If this first evening is any indication, a festival pass is a good way to go. Short+Sweet, and especially this first Top 40 night, really is built for short attention spans and those trying to get into theatre. If there is a flop (and there will be), usually a good one is on its way afterwards, meaning a favorable night. Money well spent.

The Play by Play

Oh boy… here we go. In a previous post, we specified how we’d cover Short+Sweet. This is the review of the components, not a book report on each piece. Go and see the evening to have the context for the reviews below.

We are not going after performers and first-timers. No director came to us for this session to say “don’t review my play,” which we feel is fantastic. So, with all fairness, love of the craft, and respect for the audience in mind, here’s our review of the components of a good evening of theatre:

1. Smile for the Camera

One year ago, Sikendar Hemani directed his first play outside of university in the Short+Sweet Wildcards. His “graduation” to Top 40 was earned even by that point, showing promise and confidence in stage mechanics and a willingness to learn and improve. This confidence in direction showed in Smile for the Camera with an excellent use of staging. Though the set was a bit too heavy for a ten-minute short, it was effectively used. Other than a few odd moments of blocking, direction was the highlight. The pace started a bit slow, but picked up and kept momentum.

On the downsides, the cast, which worked well in Pushed during the Alex Broun Play Festival, seemed out of place in this thriller. The cast did not seem comfortable in the setting or with the material given, thus making characters feel out of place, even when the acting was quite decent. Perhaps the material itself could be to blame. The script shows promise, as just one more round of re-writing might have made it a bit cleaner, yet its intentions were clear.

2. Killing Bambi

A good script that required energetic actors and crisp direction. Well, direction-wise it was paced appropriately, and Aaqeel Shariff brought out a lot from his actors. While it veered towards being a bit OTT (over the top), this was a piece that was better OTT than subdued. The performers really held this one, pulled a lot out of the piece and kept engagement and energy throughout.

But, where attention was paid to energy and delivery, it was less paid to in body language and actions. (Also, unnecessary sound effects.) Miming actions are especially difficult, and many directors could be faulted for not paying as much attention to this as they should. I’m not usually a fan of miming doors, but this piece rides on the ever present “vehicle” the characters are in and around, and the miming of doors opening, closing, locking, getting in and out of a car, etc. Just a little bit of tightening on these would go a long way, however, they were not bad. It would be less noticeable if it weren’t following by:

The Renaissance at tech rehearsal for Short+Sweet Dubai 2017

The Renaissance at tech rehearsal / Image credit: Daniel Murphy

3. The Renaissance

A miming piece… pure theatre. This was a piece that could not be performed in any other medium than theatre. Nilesh Deshpande has a wonderful eye and mind for staging. Believability is not the same as realism. The performers and director immediately painted a world I believed with only their bodies as props, sets and characters. Nilesh used the breadth of the stage, while still drawing the audience’s focus to a single point. That is what direction is about. You have many moving pieces, but can still draw attention and focus, while building a world.

It was a well-rehearsed, well-performed piece that was engaging and fun throughout. My only negative comments might be that the ending did seem a bit forced and clichéd, but it was entirely forgivable in the context and given the intended audience. This was the highlight of the first act and proof that age and experience have nothing to do with the quality of a piece, but that solid direction is everything.

4. Auction

This was a decent piece, but felt a bit weighted. Peri Desai’s script was quite polished and had believable dialogue with a clever ending, though with a few hackneyed moments. As direction goes, it was dragging a bit and was flat on the notes, with none of the expected range the script allows for. It is hard to say anything bad about this piece though, it does nothing to deserve demerit or hate, it was just a bit slow and felt distant.

Moving the actors closer together and getting the auctioneer out from behind the podium will do a lot to improve this piece. Extending the range will also serve well. This play is one I would love to see again now that it has seen the test of a first night.

5. Murder by Midnight

“Hotel detective Dick Piston” should give you an idea of this play’s genre, a parody noir with some seriously raunchy undertones (or overtones really.) There is nothing subtle about this piece and there shouldn’t be. I actually would have preferred seeing it even more OTT to bring out the ludicrous nature of the script. The co-direction of Aida Laubach & Lisa Harter saw adequate pacing and clean blocking, but bringing out more from the script will definitely improve this piece.

It was a laudable effort by the performers, all of them first-timers from our understanding. Though it perhaps needed more confidence and strength in the characters, the fun of the script did balance the components. This served as a nice cap to the first half and gave us a wonderful range of plays to think about during the interval.

Murder by Midnight at tech rehearsal for Short+Sweet Dubai 2017

Murder by Midnight at tech rehearsal / Image credit: Daniel Murphy

6. Her 70th Birthday

It had a good cast with good chemistry, and believability of characters. But beyond that, we don’t have much to say for this piece. The story itself is a good setting and universe to work with, but the script and direction left much to be desired.

7. Checkmate

Dubai Drama Group roars back into Short+Sweet with a Cliff Single piece that was the highlight of the second half, and probably the best of the evening. Undoubtedly, it will win the judges choice (or at least appear 2nd to The Renaissance.) It was tightly written, cleanly directed, and was entirely an in-joke on us thespians who take ourselves all-too-seriously. No movement was unnecessary, no moment was improperly paced or cue missed. It felt professional through-and-through, delivered on through the strength of its two actors (and actors acting as actors?)

One small note might be to polish the “fight” scene a little more. Some of the motions did feel a little forced or memorized, but given it’s a comedy, it still worked.

8. The Flowers

Dark comedies provide for some of the best theatre as they dig into the depth of what is human. This script was enjoyable and the performance was good, but perhaps a bit too subdued. We got the impression that the actress did not show off her true range or talent here, because while it was expertly delivered, it still dragged a bit.

Sabiha Majgaonkar’s direction was thoughtful on its blocking and attention to staging, including appropriate set and lighting. Working with a single performer as a canvas can be a difficult but gratifying experience. Sabiha likely could have focused on increasing the range and “tension” of the piece with such a talented performer at her disposal. It was clean, solid even, but just a little higher on the high notes, and a little lower on the low notes, and boom, we’d have one solid piece. Definitely deserving of Top 40 distinction.

9. A Very Brief Encounter

The strength of the performers, their struggle and realistic emotions, really held this piece together with the aid of a great script.  The material left a lot of room for interpretation and the choice of Osman Aboubakr was quite a good one: two female characters and their story as likely lovers.

However, beyond the initial planning and casting, the direction choices seem odd. A fully-lit, flush stage and barely audible actors who don’t move, one stuck behind a rolling suitcase, distantly upstage. It felt disconnected. Maybe it was meant to? The performers held it, but a beautiful piece was made difficult to engage with and get enveloped into.

10. The Detective

Hot off of Short+Sweet Abu Dhabi and written by a 14-year-old, The Detective is a fun and silly piece, very parody noir, but less racy than Murder by Midnight. The play requires a bit of hamming up, something the actors had no issue doing.  Though, the piece was only carried by its actors. The energy was not as high as it was on night one in Abu Dhabi, something desperately needed in this play.

The direction could use some tightening, as the pace and blocking make the piece drag a bit. Given the need to change “set”, pace really needs to be kept snappy. But good on Wayne Dorsey for bringing out the fun and real characters from this script.

Phil’s Predictions

Predictions for this Top 40 Week 1:

  • Judges Top Pick: Checkmate
  • Judge’s Runner Up: The Renaissance
  • People’s Choice winner: Killing Bambi (after The Renaissance & Checkmate take top people’s choice and are excluded by being Judge’s pick – complicated, we know.)

[Edit 11:40 4/2/2017 – Close! Killing Bambi was 2nd in People’s Choice after the Judge’s Pick exclusions.]

Off to Wildcards 1 now, where we’re expecting a wider variation of flops and gems. Solid night on Top 40 Week 1, looking forward to Week 2!

RESULTS (UPDATED 23:40 4/2/2017)

Judges Choice:

  • 1st – Checkmate (on to Gala Final)
  • 2nd – Renaissance (on to Gala Final)
  • 3rd (tie) – Killing Bambi
  • 3rd (tie) – Her 70th Birthday

People’s Choice:

  • 1st – Renaissance
  • 2nd – Checkmate
  • 3rd – Her 70th Birthday (on to People’s Choice Semi-Final)
  • 4th – Killing Bambi (on to People’s Choice Semi-Final)

Because The Renaissance and Checkmate were already through to the Gala Final as Judge’s picks, the 3rd and 4th People’s Choice will move on to the People’s Choice Semi-Final.

Keep watching for our continued coverage of Short+Sweet. Follow on our other social media channels, especially our regular YouTube series, to keep up to date with what’s going on around the UAE in performing arts. 

About author
Profile photo of Phil Apaza

Phil Apaza

On and around the stage since age 7, Phil has been on nearly every side of it, both professional and amateur. He has been involved in over 100 productions, from major corporate and government events to playing an on-stage prop in a walk-on role.

  • Osman#1

    February 5, 2017

    Thanks for the review. The intention was to pick a piece to showcase great acting. So many subtleties to bite into as an actor (a very good script). Staging choice was for realism (a bit of voyeurism), awkwardness, imperfection, silences, normal voices.

    Directing for short and sweet is tough, hard to get in there and get lighting, music and performance dimensions right in 40 mins, in a couple of run throughs and with a tech crew who is not intimate with the story and the goals. I raise my hat to those who do it well.

    • Profile photo of Phil Apaza

      Phil Apaza#2

      February 5, 2017

      Hmm. I think your intention came off well then. The acting was real, visceral even. I definitely got the voyeurism intention. I think it might have played better for film, rather than stage (of course, you would lose the immediacy of the acting then). But perhaps, with more tech time in space (as you said), you might have been able to rope more of the audience into your vision and fully realize that “dropped in a moment” feel. I think your piece was worthy of the Top 40 and would have been my preference for moving into the semis.


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