When I booked for this production a number of months ago, it was just called “A New Play”. But I had already come to the conclusion that you can really trust the Royal and Derngate’s Young Company to deliver top quality entertainment through the power of drama, performed with maturity beyond their years. So I was happy for them to surprise me with their new offering, no matter what it might be.
Over the course of the last year the Young Company has divided in two – the Immerse group worked with the Actors’ Company on Aftermath, a play that explored Northampton’s involvement in the First World War, and most recently Kontakt, where individual members of the audience sat at a desk opposite a young actor, for a private yet shared fifty minute journey of personal transactions. Both were wonderful productions. For Immune, the Create group has workshopped various methods of story-telling and direct address on stage and fed back to writer Oladipo Agboluaje for him to start working on this “new play”. In addition, two other groups of young actors, from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, have been through the same process, to help create a brand new work which will have three individual productions at each of the theatres, each with their own director, set designer, and sound designer. So this is not a touring production, but a different realisation of the same play by three different creative groups. It would be really fascinating to see them all.
So what’s Immune all about then? A day that starts very ordinarily, and ends very extraordinarily. Monday morning at school. The fights and the friendships. The fancyings and the funnies. The secrets and the rivalries. The mates and the gossips. It’s a school, but it could be any environment where a group of people are made to spend the day together – on a course, in an office, on a holiday tour, and so on. You know to expect the intertwined relationships, and the typical characters. The girl who says nothing. The boy who follows Jesus. The girl who’s the brainbox. The boy who’s always picked on. The girl who knows that shaking out her hair makes her look attractive. The boy who is only known for being a knobhead. They’re all here.
So this very ordinary day starts with all their usual interactions, but particularly going through the videos that they have (or haven’t) filmed for Creativity Day at the end of the week. Then they have to go to boring Mr Brown for a boring chemistry lesson. Two boys start a fight (as they do) which causes some chemicals to be knocked over. They react (the chemicals, not the boys) and create smoke and gas, there’s a flurry of coughing and gasping, but with the windows finally opened, it seems as though there’s no harm done. But then they find that one of the class has received acid burns, and is in hospital; and later on, there are more serious – not to say apocalyptic – repercussions for other school members, and the wider environment; for the town; for the country. One ordinary day. One tiny mistake. One apocalypse. It could happen.
Technically it’s both a demanding and rewarding production, with the cast being called on constantly to change the scenery themselves, wheeling panels around, locking boxes into place, sliding doors together, all in full view of the audience, and all done with immaculate calm and accuracy. In performance, I also really loved the device whereby the whole cast stand up and chant together the lines of the otherwise unseen teachers and adults. It created a nice distinction between the reality of the human emotions raging through the main characters and the almost robotic and anonymous other characters, devoid of emotion. Very effective.
The Young Company have once again worked hard to give us a tremendous performance, with great insight into the characterisations, some wonderful comic timing, and a real feel for the horror of the apocalypse. They work together as a terrific ensemble, and are very supportive and generous to each other on stage. If you’ve seen any of them before in previous productions, it’s very rewarding to appreciate their progress both as performers and as people. For instance, over four years ago we saw Luke Nunn (who plays Samson) in The Years Between, a rather spellbinding Daphne du Maurier story about a war widow who discovers she isn’t. Master Nunn was excellent in that, and today Mr Nunn is developing into a really assured and talented actor. Immune requires a lot of direct interaction with the audience, and he has that ability to take us into his confidence, as if he’s only talking to you, down to a Tee. Jakub Madej, who played (correct me if I’m wrong) the communist Dmitri in Aftermath, brings his imposing stage presence and superbly projected voice to the role of Albert, the workshy fantasist member of class. There’s a genuinely funny and realistic performance by Owen Howard as the hapless Craig, pretty much useless at everything, but a true survivor, (that is, if any of them do…). And possibly the most natural performer of the whole cast is Jarzinho Rapoz as Eric, who communicates instantly motivation, characterisation and thought processes with just one simple roll of the eyes or jokey facial expression. Definitely one to watch.
Esme Joy Allen is a complete scene stealer with her brilliant performance as Bella, desperate to get Peter’s attention, fully aware of how she can manipulate and influence others, but as vulnerable as anyone else when the chemical spillage gets out of hand. I really liked Scarlett Jordan as Denise, big on intelligence and big on hair, very convincingly expressing that sense of power you assume when people think you are a natural leader, but without being big-headed about it. When she discovers that the problem is more than she alone can solve, her sense of inadequacy is painful – and engrossing – to watch; great characterisation. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that probably the best performance of all came from Bethany Priddy as the eloquent and emotional Bonnie, trying to protect her dad’s reputation (even though she knows he’s in the wrong), and confronted by what actually happens to him as a result of the apocalyptic nightmare. A technically terrific, and really moving performance. But all the cast members gave wonderful performances and contributed to a very entertaining, not to mention scary, evening. Congratulations to everyone involved.
So all in all, a gripping production combining a very likeable and talented cast with an excellent play, both funny and frightening. It’s finished its run at the Royal and Derngate now, but it is still to play at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 23-25 July and the Theatre Royal Plymouth from 19-22 August. If the play has one message, it is – I guess – that you should live each day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right. Cherish your relationships, make peace with your enemies and be true to yourself. Don’t get bitter about the pathetic little things – there’s a bigger picture out there, and that’s the one that really counts. Oh, and always keep the windows open and don’t knock over the chemicals.