It’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.
On Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.
How 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. The impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.
Pornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.
This is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.
When the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.
In the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.
After the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.
In perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.
The final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.
Overall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!
P. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.