And so we come to the third and final of the University of Northampton’s Acting Course March season at the Royal and Derngate, and Roy Williams’ Days of Significance, which first saw the light of day at Stratford in 2007. After the strong productions of Welcome to Thebes and Blue Stockings, would this be a hat trick of excellence for the third year students? The answer is – so nearly, and that’s no fault of the actors themselves.
A bunch of drunk lads and a bunch of drunk girls clash and form alliances late at night whilst queueing to get into the club; among them are Ben, who has a relationship with Trish (although you’d not say either were monogamous) and Jamie, who is seen in a more romantic light, with Hannah. Ben and Jamie are shortly off to fight in Iraq; Ben full of bravado, the sensitive Jamie full of ill-concealed fear. The scene shifts to Iraq, and a hide-out where Ben and Jamie are holed up with two other men (ironically both played by women). Whilst Ben is making a video to send home to Trish, they are interrupted by a call to action; and the men then are suddenly plunged into the horrors of war. After the interval, we’re back in Blighty. Steve and Clare (from the drunk groups at the beginning) are getting married; Dan is Steve’s best man; Ben didn’t survive Iraq; and Jamie is back, but a changed and broken man. The usual drunken antics take place as if nothing ever happened; but Jamie is accused of some non-specific war crimes and is singled out for criticism and victimisation. He reveals that Ben also wasn’t as innocent as he has been painted. You hope (perhaps against expectation) that Steve and Clare will make a good life together; but as for the rest, their characters tainted with excess, betrayal, and worse, you feel it’s a very gloomy view of life in the future.
I really didn’t like the play at all. It’s full of unsympathetic characters, depicting many of the worse aspects of human nature; and whilst there is some humour in their yobbish behaviour, and you can certainly recognise traits of yourself and your loved ones in many of the characters, it’s strangely unrewarding to do so. This play doesn’t so much illuminate the human condition, it exposes it in all its raw awfulness and makes you want to turn your back on humanity and go and run a dog’s home. I know that street drunkenness and sexual promiscuity is daily reality for many young people today – to be honest, it was ever thus, to an extent – and I would admire any attempt to portray their lives, no matter how challenging or offensive it might feel to some people. However, I don’t think this play achieves that in a particularly constructive way. I felt it constantly allowed itself to lose focus; it’s as though it can’t decide who its protagonists are, so that it dips in and out of people’s lives, roots around to see what’s going on, but doesn’t really get to the heart of any of the problems or issues, before moving on and taking a superficial examination of someone else.
This play (and/or production) also didn’t do the job of storytelling as clearly or succinctly as the other two in the season. There are a few Brechtian Verfremdungseffekten (I know, get me) that stop you from identifying with or fully appreciating the characters. The jeering, drunken behaviour in the first scene acts overwhelms you and creates a barrier to understanding the motivations and characteristics of the people involved. The opening part of the second scene, in Iraq, shows Ben and his mates larking about in front of the video camera but I personally found it very difficult to make out everything they said, so again the details that might help you form a bond with the characters were lost. Nothing more annoying in a play than not to be able to hear the words properly! The behaviour for which Jamie will go on trial after Iraq is deliberately obfuscated, so you rely on nuance and suggestion to understand precisely what went on. Some of the male characters are played by women, and no matter how talented those actors are, again it creates a falsehood about the whole presentation. One of these characters was required to dangle a prosthetic penis in front of the group of girls in a show of masculine derring-do, which actually just emphasised the artificiality of the situation. One wonders how they would have tackled the tackle if it had been a male actor in the role. All these aspects contributed towards a lack of understanding between the cast and the audience; as a result, the actors have an uphill task in projecting themselves to the audience, and sometimes that’s a big ask.
That said, there were some tremendous performances that really socked you in the face and demanded your attention. I really enjoyed Aoife Smyth as Trish; bold, attitudinal, fearless – she reminded me a little of what Catherine Tate’s Lauren would behave like in five years’ time. She delivered her character’s lines with immense relish and confidence, and although you’d mark her as a true survivor, she also conveyed the vulnerability that sits just below her surface – an excellent performance. I also thought Penelope May gave a great performance as Hannah, showing a refreshingly softer side as she dances with Jamie, whilst still able to give as good as she gets in arguments with the others. There’s a very uncomfortable scene towards the end of the play with Jake Rivers as Lenny, her step-father, where she runs riot with her sexual fantasies. I thought both actors took that difficult subject matter with terrific bravery and sensitivity too.
Elizabeth Adejimi was excellent as the drunk Clare at her wedding reception, beautifully picking her way through her words on a knife-edge of inebriation; and also as the Sergeant in the war scene, conveying the character’s show of bravado to keep the men’s spirits up whilst concealing his own deep terror and agony. Both Daniel Gray and Stuart Warren were on great form as Steve and Dan, especially, I felt, in the wedding scene (which was in fact by far the most dramatic and satisfying scene to watch). Both Sophie Guiver and Matilda Hunt rose to the challenge of taking on the male roles of Ben and Tony/Sean, and did a good job of nailing male characteristics and behaviour, but inevitably there was a sense of slight pantomime due to its lack of realism.
I truly admired the courage and commitment of the cast towards this difficult play – but I do feel it was a poor choice. I am no prude; I love to be challenged in the theatre. I love to come out of a play a different person from the one who went in. Throw all the invective and shock tactics at me that you can; shake me up and disturb me. Give me nightmares. Sadly, this play does none of those.