I’m dipping my toes even further into the murky world of student drama, encouraged by my friends and co-bloggers Mr Smallmind and Mr Mudbeast. This is my first experience of the Flash Festival, an annual season of plays devised and performed by 3rd year students of drama at the University of Northampton. It’s a major part of their course, indeed it’s their dissertation, and so the performances are judged as part of their degree process – so it’s very important. Think of the jury final at Eurovision but with less glitter. Over the course of the first four days, I ended up seeing ten of the thirteen plays on offer and will write about each one individually in the order in which I saw them.
X or Y takes a witty and emotional look at transgender people, both from a historical point of view and also right up to date. It starts with the early court case of Ernest Boulton and Fred Park, who, as Stella and Fanny, were arrested for indecent behaviour in 1870 as a result of their transvestism and soliciting men. We see the witnesses, the judge, the lascivious doctor who gets too much pleasure from their physical examination, and the court’s final judgment. These scenes are interspersed with individual monologues from trans people, who you certainly sense are the real words of real people today, talking about their experiences of living within their own, alien, bodies and also how their families and society as a whole treat them. There’s also a projection into the future about what a baby-selecting clinic in the year 2041 might look like – and it’s pretty grim viewing!
It’s fascinating subject matter and it was treated with immense dignity and sensitivity, even though there was plenty of humour and physical comedy to enjoy. For me there were two major strengths to this production. The first was the ensemble work of the cast, marching in time (chiefly to Blur’s Girls and Boys, nice touch) as they reposition props and chairs with immaculate accuracy between each scene, everyone helping each other with their onstage costume changes which gave the whole show great pace and fluidity. The other strength was the truly devastating nature of those individual monologues. Each speaker would stand somewhere on a pink and blue line across the stage to indicate their position on the trans spectrum, and without fail each of the accounts of life as a transgender person was extraordinarily moving. There’s a sting in the tail too, reserved for the final scene, which really adds to the emotion.
There was a “dream sequence” – that’s the best way I can describe it – where the cast develop the story through movement and physical theatre; I have to admit I wasn’t entirely sure what they were trying to achieve here and, catching the eyes of the performers, only two of them seemed to be 100% confident in what they were doing. Apart from that, the energy and rhythm of the piece were perfectly maintained throughout.
The cast were uniformly excellent; highlights included Rhiana Young for the beauty of her monologue, Grace Aitken for her ability to switch from comedy to serious in an instant, Stephanie Waugh for the relish with which she tackled the vile doctor, Annalise Taylor for that scary receptionist and Kathryn McKerrow for her sheer all round stage presence. (Forgive me if any of those names are wrong – it took a mixture of research and guesswork to establish!)
Great use of music, perfect ensemble work, and really thought-provoking material. At least one member of the audience was sobbing at the end, proof that the performance could really hit your own personal emotions hard. This is one of those great shows where you can leave the theatre a different person from the one that went in, and that’s a real triumph. If you missed it at the Flash Festival, you have another chance to catch it in July at the Bedford Festival.