Review – National Theatre Connections, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th & 29th April 2016

ConnectionsThis is my first dip of the toe into the waters of the National Theatre Connections, but encouraged to take the plunge by my fellow partner in theatre-blogging crime Mr Smallmind, I thought I’d give it a go. If you don’t know what it’s all about, several local youth theatre groups participate in performing the same plays in many different parts of the country. I say “local” – some of these guys had come a very long way to perform for us, so thank you for that! It wasn’t possible for me to see all the plays on offer at the Royal and Derngate, but I saw five, which isn’t bad for a first attempt. It would have been six, except that Theatre Alba had to cancel their performance of Bassett, due to cast illness. Shame; get well soon!

Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill, performed by RAPA at the Royal Theatre, 28th April.

CitizenshipThis is the first time I’ve seen a play by the celebrated Mark Ravenhill, but knowing his fondness for the odd bit of bad language (after all he did write Shopping and F***ing), I was a little concerned for the good morals and purity of the young people involved. I needn’t have worried. What a terrific little play and what a first rate performance from the entire company.

RAPA – I’m guessing – is the Rushden Academy Performing Arts. Many things stood out for me. The sensitivity with which the subject matter was handled – a 15-year-old boy trying to understand his sexuality – and how it was portrayed by the actors playing Tom and Amy was really impressive. The sheer professionalism of the actors; the lead roles of Tom, Amy and Gary brought huge understanding and emotion to their characters, as well as getting just the right amount of humour out of the text. You would not have known these were not professional actors. There were also some superbly performed scenes showing how some girls are born to be great mothers and some just aren’t!

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the show was how well the company worked as an ensemble. The opening (silent) scene is a fantastic display of physical comedy between the cast, choreographically perfect to within an inch of each other; swift, precise, funny, story-telling, characterful, full of little victories and school bullying; a true delight. When anything went slightly wrong they coped with it brilliantly – one guy lost a shoe in one of the mock-fight scenes but he carried on as if nothing had happened and subtly put it back on at a good moment – that could have thrown a lesser actor. I was also very impressed with the confidence and adroitness with which the cast handled the boxes – that kind of prop/scenery handling isn’t as easy as it looks and they have it down to a fine art. Stunning work team, you did a fantastic job.

As an aside, in an audience made up of more than 95% sixth-formers, I was very surprised at the barely suppressed sounds of shock, horror and disgust that came from some of them at the sight of two guys kissing. I would have thought young adults today (particularly those interested in the theatre) would have been more grown-up about such things.

Take Away by Jackie Kay, performed by BEA Theatre Company, in the Underground, 28th April.

Take AwayTo this group of aspiring actors, I give you this constructive feedback. OK kids, here’s the deal: If you’re going to the effort to put on a play, and ask the general public to pay to come and see it, there are some rules you have to follow. 1) learn the lines; 2) know your positions; 3) when things go wrong, cover it up and move on; 4) if you’re occupying chairs by the side of the stage whilst you’re not “on stage”, maintain personal discipline by sitting still and silently; and 5) don’t give up after five minutes and giggle your way through the rest of the performance like you’re in the playground. Above all, don’t make your audience cringe with so much embarrassment that they want the earth to open up and swallow them. I understand that for reasons outside of the cast’s control there were some late-in-the-day changes which inevitably meant it was under-rehearsed. But even so, there’s no excuse for not taking it seriously in front of a paying audience.

Eclipse by Simon Armitage, performed by Northampton High School, at the Royal Theatre, 28th April.

EclipseSimon Armitage is the Oxford Professor of Poetry, so I went in to the show hoping for something rather classically erudite. The play was commissioned by the National Theatre for the Connections programme back in 1996, and was inspired by the real-life disappearance of a girl during the solar eclipse. Top marks here for the professionalism in preparing a programme (the only one of the five shows to do so) – makes the life of a reviewer so much easier!

I must confess I didn’t really like the play itself very much. As a modern verse drama, it felt a bit pretentious and rather stylised – just not my style I’m afraid. However, there were some very enjoyable performances. Georgina Balderstone in particular gave a very strong performance as Lucy Lime, the girl who disappears. Full of character, benefiting from her very clear and well projected speaking voice, and appearing naturally very comfortable on the stage – a fine stage presence. Amy Goldup was also very strong as Klondike, the natural leader of “the gang”, very accurate and natural with her speech patterns and conversational style. I also really enjoyed the performance of Shona Guha as Glue Boy, bringing out all the humour of the character’s drug-fuelled state. If I have a criticism, it would be that they weren’t sufficiently au fait with the prop handling and scenery layout, which caused a few minor crises and collisions along the way – including an unexpectedly hilarious moment when a member of the cast repositioned a table on which she was placing items, forgetting that, to us, that table was a huge boulder. But that’s just a matter of more rehearsal. Overall a very good performance of a not-very-easy play.

The Musicians by Patrick Marber, performed by St Swithun’s School, in the Underground, 28th April.

The MusiciansI’m glad to have finally got the chance to see The Musicians, because we were originally scheduled to see the R&D Youth Company perform it in February – but it clashed with the UK’s National Final at Eurovision. Sorry, Youth Company; I will see you again some time, promise. The Musicians was written in 1994 and is a charming little play about a British school orchestra performing at a culture festival in Moscow – only problem is, their instruments have been seized by Customs. Get out of that one if you can.

It was a very enjoyable production, high on humour if a little sparse on theatricality. Much of the drive comes from the antagonistic relationship but later respectful friendship between Roland, the conductor and Alex, the cleaner; and the two actors took on these roles with spirit. But I most enjoyed the performance of the character (didn’t catch the name I’m afraid) of the girl who idolises Roland and looks up to him at every opportunity. She gave a great comic performance, especially when she throws herself on the floor in self-disgust because it’s her fault the instruments have been impounded. From a story-telling perspective, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what happened in the concert. Did they just mime to a recording? Or did they mime silently? The character who says she made a mistake made a great job of that very funny line. I also didn’t entirely understand why Alex was lauded as a hero so much at the end. I was paying attention, honest. I’m unsure whether those little problems were caused by the direction, or the acting, or both. Oh, and kudos to the group for going for a sophisticated professional-style curtain call!

Gargantua by Carl Grose, performed by Foundations Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, 29th April.

GargantuaFoundations Youth Theatre can’t half get a lot of people on stage at one time! When we entered the auditorium, there were already dozens of actors, sprawled out over the floor, their hands quivering to the beat of some portentous music. The Prime Minister was mistaking his cabinet member for “Doris”, they were trying to get him to remember the secret code to prevent a nuclear war, and there was a vast big baby balloon bobbing up and down in the background. Confused? Maybe, but thoroughly delighted too, as this huge surreal melting pot of nonsense had me giggling from the start.

I really loved the inventive use of balloons throughout the performance – someone with very adept fingers had made them into a film camera, a doctor’s stethoscope, military weapons; in fact, almost every prop was made from balloonery. Well done to everyone for keeping them under control, because balloons have a habit of slipping out of place, but the prop handling was perfect. Also, congratulations to the guys who, War Horse-like, discreetly and expertly puppeteered the big baby into position and operated its hands and legs so efficiently that you didn’t notice them pulling the strings. Nice work.

As well as all the great ensemble scenes, where everyone knew their places and dovetailed with each other perfectly, there were some super individual performances too. No programme, so I don’t know anyone’s names, so I’ll have to refer to them by their characters. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Regina, the hectoring building developer, all northern bluff and bully; she brought a terrific stage presence and characterisation to the show. Mr and Mrs Mungus provided a genuine touch of tenderness to the roles of new parents and finely played their parts as straight as possible so that the ironic humour shone out. Dr Lucky approached his role with relish – he had something of the James Acaster about him; politician Pippa also has a great physical presence, delivered her lines with an excellent variety of emphasis, and she also gave the Prime Minister the most convincing slap. The PM and his adviser cronies were very amusing, and I also enjoyed the pomposity of the TV reporter. Last, but not least, congratulations to the guys who sang the baby’s lullaby – very nicely done, with a good balance of absurd humour and musicality. But all the cast turned in a sterling performance, and you could feel, as a member of the audience, that everyone sitting around you really enjoyed it. Great stuff.

NT ConnectionsSo if this were a drama festival and I had to pick one “winner”, out of those five I would narrowly give it to RAPA for Citizenship but with Foundations Youth Theatre’s Gargantua a very creditable second. I really enjoyed my first Connections experience, and will certainly look out for it again next year. In the meantime, I would estimate that over the last two days I saw at least seven young actors who gave really impressive, sophisticated and virtually flawless performances and I look forward to seeing them again on fresh stages and in new roles in the future. Best of luck to everyone involved!

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