Review – Red Inquisition, Memoir Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 17th May 2016

Red InquisitionWhen I was growing up, the fall-out from American McCarthyism was still a Pretty Big Thing. He was the paranoid senator who interrogated creative artists to sniff out subversive communists from within their midst. To what extent the “red threat” was a real danger to America, or was just the paranoia of the times, is probably a matter of conjecture. For good measure, he also encouraged discrimination against homosexuals too, so he was obviously an awfully nice chap.

I always really enjoy plays, songs, films, books and so on that examine their own creative process – often it is the spark of creative genius. Spandau Ballet’s True is about how to write the song “True”. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (particularly the film) is all about how to make the film of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. Red Inquisition starts with our three actors discussing the benefits or otherwise of their new rehearsal space (which just so happens to be the space we’re sitting in) and what the subject of their new show will be. For me, this sense that the actors are sharing the same experience as the audience (and vice versa), living in the same surroundings, and breathing the same air is the stuff of theatrical electricity; and I was instantly captivated by that opening scene – which was also extremely funny, with all three performers demonstrating terrific comic ability. They consider a number of possible themes for the new play, running them up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, until they discover a book about McCarthy and his witch hunts. The subject matter fascinates them – and a show is born.

Red Inquisition castIt is indeed fascinating material; and they’ve dug deep into the archives to find footage of three particular McCarthy victims – Lena Horne, Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin. Three people who, by virtue of their creative genius, totally changed the world. Relevant video footage is compared with the actors’ own interpretations/impersonations of these people, bringing black and white memories sharply into today’s focus. I would say that it was much more effective when they were reviving live performance, such as Ciara Goldsberry’s beautiful singing of Lena Horne classics, or Jaryd Headley’s accurate recreation of the Chaplin gait; less so when they simply repeated scenes on video that they had already acted out. Mr Headley gave us a strong and moving portrayal of Chaplin, the effect of which was weakened by the on-screen repetition of the same words. We didn’t need to see that proof, we already believed you!

Daniel Hadjivarnava had the toughest job trying to make Arthur Miller come to life, because, as the video footage showed, in real life he was a very dull man! It may sound like a back-handed compliment to say that Mr Hadjivarnava portrayed Miller with considered accuracy, but actually I was very impressed with the way he captured him. Ms Goldsberry conveyed Lena Horne’s immense dignity and star quality with excellent understanding and insight; and Mr Headley absolutely brought Chaplin to life with his rather neurotic watching of old classics and tentative trying-out of new routines, needily relying on the support of others. He was also absolutely 100% confident in his delivery of every line and was a pleasure to watch.

Memoir TheatreThere was a joke about Uta Hagen: four things I didn’t know about her. It sent the (majority of student) audience into paroxysms of hilarity. My fellow blogger and I sat in stony silence. Was it an in-joke? Or were we just stupid? The latter I can entirely believe. If it’s the former – don’t alienate sections of your audience into feeling like second class citizens, it doesn’t make them feel valued! I also thought there was a missed opportunity to make the content more relevant by concentrating on Miller’s Death of a Salesman and not on The Crucible, his allegory about McCarthy. Maybe they thought it was too obvious?

The choice of video at the end was inspired, powerfully showing how all these great talents triumphed through their adversity and regained their reputations and honour in the long run. Quite right too, a very positive and uplifting note on which to end. Fascinating subject matter given thoughtful treatment and with some excellent performances. Most enjoyable!

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