I blame Mr Smallmind. I was perfectly happy seeing all those wonderful professional productions at the R&D and the plethora of other theatres within easy reach of Northampton. Then he said I should broaden my vision and catch some of the University of Northampton Acting students’ shows. Start gently with the March shows in the Royal. Get in deeper with the Flash Festival productions. Now I’ve turned really hardcore, as I accompanied the aforesaid bad influence on my first visit to Isham Dark (isn’t that one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets? Darn well should be) and Shrapnel, a play devised by the students through their own experiences, observations and research of life on the streets in Northampton.
The programme notes describe it as an unapologetically sprawling vision of contemporary street life. That’s a really good description. The acting space at Isham Dark lends itself perfectly to this purpose, as we the audience look across the stage in transverse at other audience members looking back at us – as though they are our mirror reflection as we observe what’s going on in front of us. And, separating us, where the action is, the 19-strong cast suggest an overall landscape of hundreds of people coming and going about their daily business; and specifically, about 30 or so people whose lives intertwine over the course of approximately 36 hours.
Structurally – yes, it’s sprawling. At 2 hours without an interval I could have done with a pause halfway through, because it’s an intense show with lots to look at and my legs could have done with a stretch. What begins as a very diverse experience, with many seemingly unrelated characters just living their day to day existence, grows in force as you realise the hidden relationships beneath the surface. For example, you discover that person a) is person b)’s brother and person c) is in a difficult relationship with person d) and person e) is, in fact, a dog.
You could almost break the play down into individual playlets, some of which are very strong in their own right – either because of the acting, or the text, or just the impression they are trying to achieve. I loved the conversation between Jack and the girl who isn’t his girlfriend (Emmy? Can’t quite remember – very hard when the names aren’t in the programme!) but whom he’s trying to impress, when he’s concealing the fact that his super new job is a chugger. It’s very funny, quite touching, and indeed, I felt his embarrassment! I loved the night-time scene when all the homeless people get together and create a virtual living room out of just a rug and a welcome mat; that scene showed me something completely new about homelessness that I’ve never considered before – very challenging stuff. And I loved the scene where the two rival chugging teams have a stand-off, each trying to out-threaten the other, apart from the two newbies, who naturally want to have a good intercollegial friendship; very funny, and I can absolutely believe the truthfulness of that situation. I loved, although that’s not the right word, the scene where a guy, who is generally neither brutal nor heartless, gets caught up in chav/machismo pack mentality and starts tormenting a homeless woman with money if she’ll lick his shoe. And I loved the challenge you face when you’re giving a homeless person some money and then you catch them using their mobile phone – they can’t really be poor, can they? All these scenes are either heartwarming, horrifying or hilarious and work exceptionally well. And I loved the way everyone recreates the sound of raindrops.
We saw the first performance, so perhaps we should look on it as a preview? There were just a couple of loose moments, although perhaps not as many as one might fear or expect; it would be great if they had a plan for when the play definitely reaches its conclusion (!) and I recommend guys that you work on a smart curtain call; it makes all the difference as to how the audience feels about the entire show and its performers because it’s the only time we get to see you as you and not as your characters.
Having seen last year’s third year students perform in a few plays now, it’s absolutely fascinating to get this early glimpse into some (hopefully!) successful acting careers of the future. Of all the cast, I think only one person didn’t really convince me of their belief in their own character, which led to them giving an uneven and rather faltering performance. However, for everyone else, I totally believed in their characters, and many of them made me laugh and, perhaps more importantly in this play, made me cry. Well, very nearly.
For me a few performances really stand out as being first rate. Jessica Bridge is excellent as Harriet, a chugger with attitude – but not so much that she couldn’t be a rounded person too. She has brilliant clarity of diction and I heard and understood every word (a quality never to be underestimated!) She has (don’t take this the wrong way) a bad girl quality that is both attractive and edgy; quite a hard coating that conceals a softer centre. That really helps us to understand the sometimes contrasting and unexpected motivations of her character. I also really enjoyed the performance of Lewis Hodson as Ben, the homeless guy whose trust in mankind has completely gone, which results in his sometimes letting rip in anger against whoever he thinks has slighted him. If he’s actually based on a real life character in Northampton, I think I know the guy in question. Totally believable, with authoritative delivery and an excellent stage presence. One To Watch.
I was very impressed with Florence Rees-Waite as the pavement artist, holding her own, beautifully, against Lee Hancock’s formidable ranting insidious git character; exuding warmth and kindness in her interaction with the other people facing hard times. She has a very expressive face – it tells great stories without having to use words. When she does speak, she has wonderful control over the pace of her speech, which gives us huge confidence in her – you tend to hang on to her every word. Hans Oldham also showed great conviction as the Jesus Man, part preacher, part mental sufferer, part street alcoholic; he paints a very sad picture of this man but again with great humanity, and you feel with genuine affection. Connor McCreedy is a charmingly naïve Jack; April Lissimore gives a very enjoyable performance as the underachieving Carly with deeper problems than we’ll ever know; I liked how Olly Manning spins from being Mr Nice Guy to Mr Vile in that very telling scene of torment; and Kundai Kanyama as Martha successfully conveys the juxtaposing motivations of being a team leader; an element of coaching and nurturing mixed with an element of JFDI. And, it turns out, with a heart of gold.
The entire cast put huge effort into creating an excellent ensemble feel, each giving each other great support on stage, and giving the audience a rewarding and fascinating insight into what a typical street sees every day. I look forward to seeing them do more throughout the year!