Review – Something Human, Incubus Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Something HumanMens sana in corpore sano, said Juvenal (apparently). The best you can hope for as a human being is to have a healthy mind in a healthy body; one’s not that much good without the other. Incubus Theatre’s Something Human introduces us to four people whose lives are interwoven by an office – a manager, a personal assistant, a cleaner and a woman who lives nearby whose daughter has gone missing. But something’s not right. The cleaner is playing too significant a role in the company for her status. When the mother comes to distribute leaflets about the missing girl, it’s to the cleaner that she asks permission – which isn’t granted, and with very bad grace. When the PA finds she’s been seconded to work alongside the manager, it’s to the cleaner that she asks not to be given that role. (Why are you asking me, I’m only the cleaner comes the undeniably fair response). Meanwhile, on the phone at home, the cleaner makes aggressive assignations with random men; whilst the manager is exposed as a sexually predatory domination fetishist, the PA (female) is a paedophile, and the mother has murdered her daughter. In an evening’s entertainment that goes too far, the manager slaughters the PA; after all that, the cleaner is charged with the murder of three men. Something Human is the title – but there’s not much in the way of mens sana or corpore sano going on here.

Jason PileBut that’s the intriguing web of deceit that this play sets up. The final scene shows the cleaner talking through Munchausen Syndrome with a psychologist. This is a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. But what are the actual repercussions of that fact on the case? One thing’s for sure; the cleaner is mentally unstable. My own interpretation is that the mother, the manager and the PA are all real people, who wander in and out of the cleaner’s life at the office, Anya Gallagherbut that a) they don’t have the mental illnesses or sexual perversions that the cleaner has attributed to them and that b) nor are they dead. Or murderers. I could be wrong here. All’s not as it seems at any rate. And it’s enormous fun to pick up the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the plot and try to place them in a pattern that makes sense! If you’ve seen it, do you agree with my interpretation?

Emilia OwenThere are some very good performances caught up in the machinations of this play! Jason Pile plays the manager with just the right touch of sleazy middle-management arrogance, on the sneaky lookout for a bit of skirt. He identifies all the areas of the text where he can create just a bit of humour to help fill out his character and you warm to him, even if his character is largely loathsome! A perfect foil for this character is Anya Gallagher’s PA, anxiously expecting a tough interview, tentatively finding her feet in the new role, working out how and when she can start to assert herself in the job. I love her range of facial expressions, Lori Heatheryou know full well when she’s genuinely interested and when she’s humouring those around her. There was one extremely funny and beautifully played scene between all four actors when the manager and the PA are texting each other during a meeting and the other staff are all too polite to mention it. And there’s also the Grand Guignol scene where Mr Pile emerges covered in blood and Ms Gallagher doesn’t emerge at all; it was a very powerful visual effect.

A bloody JasonEmilia Owen brings a good degree of motherly warmth to her role and is very moving in the scene where she begs forgiveness in the church. I didn’t really believe that someone as kind-hearted as her would be capable of killing their own child – and I think, on reflection, I was right! At the other end of the scale, Lori Heather’s tough talking, aggressive cleaner is the stuff of nightmares and it’s a great characterisation of someone who’s lost sight of anything human about themselves. My only slight criticism would be that at times of high anxiety and near hysteria, some of her verbal clarity got lost. I could tell she was furious, but I couldn’t always make out the words that expressed it!

Very nice ensemble work and a great star coupling with Mr Pile and Ms Gallagher. And a thought-provoking play that’s still intriguing me several days later! Congratulations on an enjoyable and challenging production.

Review – Drained, Open Eye Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Open Eye TheatreFamilies, eh, who’d have them? The one set of people you should always be able to rely on in times of need. The people who should pull together when the times are rough. The people who have always got your back. But it isn’t always the case. Take Laura, for instance. She’s at the heart of the family trying to keep everyone together. After their mum had died things were difficult. Older brother Jamie was hardly ever seen. Now that dad’s gone too, he couldn’t even bother coming to his funeral – just the wake, in the hope of a few free pints. Younger brother Will is more reliable, and he does give Laura some support, although he’s got boyfriend trouble of his own, and of course relationships always have to come before relations, don’t they?

Bryony DitchburnIf there’s one thing this absolutely brilliant gem of a little play tells you, it’s that when someone reaches out to you for help, don’t turn your back. Yes, they may be that annoying sibling. Yes, you may well think that they’ve caused their own problems. Yes, your time is precious and you have other commitments. But if they’re ringing you, constantly, leaving messages, getting more and more desperate, surely there’s a time when you bury whatever hatchets there were and be a listening ear. One day it may be too late.

Robert CharlesBeautifully structured over the course of a year – nicely conveyed by the change of the seasonal pub notices from Valentine’s to Summer BBQ – Laura returns again and again to the same pub table and knocks back more and more cheap rosé as her life gradually disintegrates. Friendly barkeeper Dan is there with his listening ear, but he’s got his own life to lead too. Jamie would far sooner spend time with his buffoon of a workmate Steve than his brother or sister; he’s homophobic anyway, so why should he and Will want to have anything to do with each other? And all the time, neither of them realise quite how alone Laura feels.

Jake WyattIt’s eloquently written, with a naturally evolving story and a simple but effective staging, with three fantastic performances that live on in your mind many days later. Bryony Ditchburn is compelling as Laura, continually disappointed with her warring brothers but relying on them for support; making a fool of herself in front of Dan, tearing herself apart in front of us. A superb performance. Robert Charles is also brilliant as Will, a very effective mix of self-obsessed petulant and selfless kindly. Jake Wyatt completes the threesome as the erratic and grumpy Jamie, never willing to put himself out for anyone else. The scene where Mr Wyatt confronts Mr Charles with a homophobic outburst of abuse was absolutely stunning, and an acting masterclass from both; you could hear the proverbial pin drop at the surprise shock and venom. Mr Wyatt was also very convincing as Dan, and Mr Charles hilarious as Steve, putting his foot in it with every opportunity.

This would be a brilliant play to take to the Edinburgh Festival. Funny; tragic; enormously emotional; and with first class performances. If Carlsberg made Flash Festival shows…?

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate which is a good thing because you can’t have too many of them. At first it looked as though we were going to be a little understocked audience-wise, but shortly before it started a cavalcade of fresh punters arrived and filled all the front rows. Good for you guys!

Maureen YoungerWe knew that regular MC Dan Evans was taking a sabbatical this week so who would be our stand-in stand-up host? Step up to the line Maureen Younger, whom we loved last year in the Upfront Comedy Show at the Royal. Maureen certainly knows how to knock a rabble together. She’s delightfully in-your-face, no-holds-barred and takes-no-prisoners when it comes to finding out about the night’s clientele. She concentrated on twin-on-his-own Matt, who had been segregated from the rest of his group, poor lamb, but also encountered posh Chloe, some teachers, Frank the Dutchman, and… Mrs Chrisparkle and me. Dan knows better than to engage us in conversation thank heavens, but Maureen gave us what for in her usual badinage-filled way. Fortunately she got more out of Mrs C than me and ended up likening her to an EastEnders-type bouncer. You had to be there.

Robin MorganFirst up was a new face to us, Robin Morgan, a fresh-faced young chap with bags of vitality and lots of good material about being a new dad, getting married, being the only guy at kiddies’ playgroup – fairly standard comedy fayre but he did it all with great humour and a nice turn of phrase. I loved his stuff about being a meal deal fanatic, and how when you’re planning a family you have to have sex pre-programmed into your phone. He’s bright and funny in a preppy kind of way. Unfortunately Matt’s twin Steve was looking distinctly unamused by one brief sequence, and Mr Morgan allowed himself to be slightly psyched out by his reaction and he never quite regained the room as a result. But he was very good and I would certainly look forward to seeing him again.

Naomi CooperOur second act was someone else we’d not seen before – that never happens! This was Naomi Cooper, who’d just been to see her mum in Bletchley. She also had plenty of good material about dealing with parents, including that thing where they always give you something unexpected and useless when you leave. The majority of her set, though, was about sex and ex-boyfriends; by the sound of it, she’s had a lot of both! An enjoyable gig; there were times when I felt her stage authority just waned a little, but everyone enjoyed it. The somewhat questionable last joke made us feel a little uncomfortable, and we’re no prudes! (I’ll say no more).

Nick DoodyLast up was Nick Doody, whom we’ve seen twice before and is normally a safe pair of hands. He started off a little slowly but when he got into his stride was really top notch. We loved his characterisation of a polyglot Dutch infant – yes, you read that right. Normally audiences don’t respond very well here in Northampton to political humour – we’re not that sophisticated really – but he nailed it with his observations of our Great Beloved National Political Leaders (yeah right). Once he’d finished with politics, he ended up with (and forgive me, gentle reader) wanking, (as a subject matter, I mean) which was absolutely brilliant. He also mercilessly took the mick out of the drunk old lady sat in front of us. That could have gone horribly wrong but was hysterical. A great way to end the evening.

Another really enjoyable night of Screaming Blues! Next one is on 11th May – we can’t go, but that’s no reason for you not to!

Review – Beneath It All, Balance Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Flash FestivalIt’s traditional to say that the best years of our lives are when we are kids; and with that they tend to mean from our earliest memories up till the teenage years. Once you hit the terrible teens, your hormones start throbbing, your face comes out in spots, you’re working out who you fancy, and schoolwork becomes harder and harder. No thanks, I wouldn’t want to go through that again. Balance Theatre’s Beneath It All examines the lives of three young people, one of whom has had it tough but for whom life seems to be getting better; another who seems to have had too much responsibility too young and for whom life is getting tougher; and a third who seems to be totally unaffected by all those teenage angsts and is merrily sailing through life. As this play makes clear, we’re all different.

Beneath It AllCharlie is first seen in a wheelchair; he has a backstory of problems that are hinted at but never explicitly stated, which helps create a fascinating character. Say the wrong thing to him and it can really cause him anguish. He’s clearly a fish out of water in Big School, with no one to help him find the right classroom for the next lesson. He relies heavily on older sister Natalie, who tries to boost his confidence and keep him on the right track, although as he develops he resents being mothered. Natalie, too, relies heavily on him, as she’s been looking after him rather than finding the time to develop her own identity. So when he gains independence – and a girlfriend – she’s left alone, with an unwanted pregnancy and a reliance on the bottle. Meanwhile her friend Cecily, with her bright humour and gentle kindness, becomes the link between the two. The company is called Balance Theatre and it is Cecily who is the pivot – imagine her at the centre of the see-saw with Charlie and Natalie at the ends, one up in the air, the other down on the ground, then vice versa; only she could provide the balance for all three.

Oliver FranksThis is a beautiful portrayal of the awakening of young love. Oliver Franks as Charlie vividly captures all those anxieties and confusions, from his first secret sexy dream to those early bashful looks and tentative touches and the mixture of horror and delight that is the awkward school dance. It’s a superb performance that makes you laugh and makes you shudder with your own embarrassed memories. He also strongly suggests Charlie’s mental instability without ever making the nature of it obvious, which intrigues us and makes us want to know more. His reaction when Elizabeth Ferreira’s Cecily jokingly wonders if his sexy dream involved him raping her was quite shocking; you can’t tell if he’s just feeling guilty about the dream, or indeed whether there was some suggestion of some scandal in his past that we don’t know about. All very intriguing.

Elizabeth FerreiraMr Franks and Ms Ferreira have great chemistry together and their physical closeness for the dream sequence was very touching and emotional. She conveyed splendidly her character’s self-confidence with a very assured performance; she too is learning about sexual attraction, but takes it in her stride with giggly joy. Alexandra Pienaru is very effective in showing Natalie’s ability to placate and comfort her brother whilst needing reassurance herself, which he’s not mature enough to provide. For me, the vision of her nursing her bottle of wine in tears was the most emotionally outstanding moment of what is a very emotional play.

Alexandra PienaruIf I have a small criticism, it would be that, as the audio dynamics in the church can be unreliable, sometimes the intimate conversations between the two women were a little too quiet to be fully heard a few rows back. But overall it was a very well performed, and very engrossing play and I really enjoyed it. Congratulations all!

Review – (His) Sheep, Control Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 24th April 2018

Flash FestivalSt. Peter’s Church is the perfect setting for a play that’s set in a church, and when you enter the building you’re met with bucketfuls of haze and atmosphere – and plenty of jazz too, which felt perhaps a little incongruous! Pastor Stanley is sitting there welcoming you, and once the play gets underway he takes up the microphone and affirms that God is good, with all that credible zeal of a TV evangelical minister. Hidden in a corner of the choirstalls loafs Kevin, a homeless guy, very much down on his luck, but who is hoping that Stanley’s charity will be able to house him – he’s top of the list, apparently, so the chances are looking good. Enter Victoria, Kevin’s sister, a hard-nosed journalist with a suspicious mind. She and her brother have been estranged for some time, but she reckons she’s on to Stanley. Does she have evidence to suggest that his charity work is a cover up for something more devious and sinister? And just where do Thomas and the others who have already been rehoused actually live?

His SheepWhat sets this production apart from the other Flash Festival shows I’ve seen so far this year is that they have been relatively simplistic and naturalistic in their staging, but this is a much more elaborate show. The smoke effects, the jazz; the physical theatre mime routines that interrupt the flow of the story to represent (I think) the emotions of the protagonists; the sea of torn up newspapers thrown like confetti, representing (maybe) journalists’ stories of the past that no longer have currency. There are some elements here that deliberately unsettle and complicate things for the audience; done carelessly that could annoy us, but this is intriguing and strangely beguiling.

Mo SamuelsIt is a perplexing story, that builds to an eerie and unexpected climax; and the final tableau rather suggests the triumph of evil over good, which feels unsettling in a church. Mo Samuels takes the role of Stanley, smart in his shiny steely grey jacket, and looking every inch the respectable, and definitely not impoverished, cleric. He’s great addressing the audience with his semi-sermons, getting under our skin and making us believe he’s a good man… isn’t he? When we find out about the real Stanley – or is it Cyrus – Mr Samuels gives us a chilling unhinged characterisation that makes you feel vulnerable sitting in the front row! A very disturbing (and excellent) performance.

Terrell OswaldTerell Oswald is the homeless Kevin, humiliated to stand before us with his ragged sleeping bag, just looking for 30p from anyone who’ll give it. What I really enjoy about Mr Oswald’s performance is that, for a relatively big bloke, he’s enormously nimble – he gives all us chunkier chaps hope! It’s a very enjoyable physical performance, with some very nice flashes of humour despite the darkness of Kevin’s life.

Chloe HoffmeisterChloe Hoffmeister plays journalist Victoria, a smart portrayal of a confident woman in a tough world who knows what she wants and how to get it; she’s also great at showing us her panic-stricken fears when she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Again, another excellent performance.

As for the play itself, I felt it could have been a little tighter in construction and felt just a tad long, but I really enjoyed the performances and the shock ending certainly leaves you wondering!

Review – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Flying LoversThis intriguing title – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – reflects the lives and love of Marc and Bella Chagall; he the famous artist, she the less famous writer. He was a penniless art student when they met; she was the daughter of a wealthy jeweller. They lived in Vitebsk (I’d never heard of it, I’m afraid) which today is the fourth largest city in Belarus. They married in 1915, had a daughter, Ida; they lived in St Petersburg, Moscow, Paris and New York, as his renown and artistry grew. She died in 1944 of a sudden virus infection, easily curable if there hadn’t been a shortage of penicillin due to the war. He went on to marry again and lived till the ripe old age of 97, finally shuffling off this mortal coil in 1985.

TFLOV-prod11The bare bones of a life can look stark, but Emma Rice’s production for Kneehigh brings Marc and Bella to life with such vivacity, colour, warmth, humour and a sense of sheer love that the mere dates and facts of a relationship become meaningless. Even through the hard times they never lost the ability to be playful together, and to delight in the simple things of life – like clocks, and colours, confetti and funny hats. Like all relationships, in the words of Meera Syal, it wasn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee. There were times when he didn’t provide the emotional support that she needed. Despite his clownish demeanour, Chagall took his painting extremely seriously, frequently to the detriment of his family life.TFLOV-prod1 His baby daughter was four days old before he finally took time to meet her. He tears out a page from the book Bella is writing to make a paper butterfly for Ida. He isn’t remotely interested in the news that the Nazis have overrun Bella’s parents’ jewellery shop. He mocks her attempts to write because she doesn’t let it rule her life. Yet she loves him unconditionally, and always bounces back with a smile, a song and a game. We even discover how forgiving she is after her death. It’s an amazing portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit; if you’re fuelled with love, somehow your tank never runs empty.

TFLOV-prod2The playfulness of their relationship and the fantasy element of Marc’s paintings are beautifully realised by the staging; a wonky platform and frame, off which suspend a surreal clock, phone receiver, buckets and handles – all you need to reflect an unorthodox existence. Other characters in their life are represented by a balloon, or a disembodied voice, while Marc dons an old black lace shawl to provide a hilarious cameo of Bella’s mother. There are two other members of the cast; James Gow and Ian Ross provide the stunningly gorgeous music with their piano, cello and other instruments.TFLOV-prod3 Some of Mr Ross’ compositions evoke traditional Jewish folk music with superb energy. The choreography, by Emma Rice and New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, is slinky, funny, expressive and highly theatrical for such a confined space. Malcolm Rippeth’s exciting lighting design brings to life the Chagalls’ love for colour and vitality; and Simon Baker’s crisp and accurate sound design creates a web of magic with various effects including a distant telephone hum, and the nagging drip of water in a bucket, a strong juxtaposition of the sound of reality against the vision of fantasy.

TFLOV-prod4And at the heart of the show are two sensational performances from Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. I didn’t realise these two terrific actors were in this show until I glanced at the programme just before we went in. We’d seen Mr Antolin in the superb Taken at Midnight in Chichester a few years ago, and Ms Maywood was probably the best Bebe in A Chorus Line I’ve ever seen (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them!) TFLOV-prod8I already guessed we were going to be in for a treat, but I underestimated how much. Having done a little research on the Chagalls in order to write this review, I’m staggered by how accurately they portrayed their actual physical appearance – a technical masterpiece of hair and makeup, that’s for sure. They also have a fantastic chemistry together on stage that really enhances the love bond between the characters, which made some of the scenes truly emotional – there were plenty of instances of the old wetness in the eye during this show.

TFLOV-prod16Mr Antolin absolutely wowed me with his brilliant clowning skills, with perfect facial expressions, deft fancy footwork, and a fabulous pratfall. Ms Maywood is of course a brilliant singer and dancer, and invested the character with so much love and emotion; not only simply her overwhelming love for her husband but all the torments of those inner repressions when her needs are ignored, or when the evil world out there comes one step closer to threaten her.

TFLOV-prod20One of the achievements of this production was that it made me want to find out so much more about the Chagalls and their work; it really piqued my interest in a character that I knew little about – and that’s got to be a good thing. Primarily, though, it’s an elegant, quirky, loving portrayal of two people in a hostile world, finding a way to make the best life together. Absolutely brilliant. It’s near the end of its tour now, with just Cheltenham for the first week in May and the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina from 24 May to 10 June. Highly recommended!

Review – Eight Pounds Sixty, TaBoo Productions, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th April 2018

Flash FestivalDepression, mental illness, suicide. We see the words every day and, fortunately, for most of us that’s as close as we get to understanding them. But as more and more people are becoming diagnosed with mental illnesses, and the consumption of drugs like citalopram are steadily on the rise, TaBoo Productions’ Eight Pounds Sixty is a timely reminder of what it can be like to suffer with depression and have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in this country; it’s thought to affect men more than women because women find it easier to talk, although other studies suggest that women are more successful (if that’s the right word) at committing suicide than men – men have more failed suicide attempts. Such statistics are gruesome.

Eight Pounds SixtyThis short play introduces us to two characters, 23-year-old Annie, doing well, with her own two-bedroomed flat in the best part of Buckinghamshire; and 17-year-old Rosie, a garrulous, excitable young lady with the world at her feet, or so you’d think. But Annie’s messy floordrobe is a symptom of her messed up mind, and as for Rosie – well we’ll come to her in a short while. Annie presents well. She’s happy at work (relatively – we all have idiot colleagues from time to time, but her recollections of their coffee orders are very amusing); she’s having counselling but she likes her counsellor, and citalopram gets her through the day – the Eight Pounds Sixty of the title, by the way, is the cost of a prescription. She bemoans the idiotic questions that she is required to answer for the well-meaning but overstretched NHS. But then there was the day she had to ring 111, and we hear the conversation between her and switchboard, and it’s clear she’s in trouble.

Naomi EllNaomi Ell gives a stunning solo performance, winning us over instantly with her quirky observations about her daily routines, the nicely impertinent asides about her colleagues, and her chatty reflections on her medical treatment. So it comes as a tremendous shock when the painful truth of Annie’s condition can no longer be hidden, and the tears begin to fall – not only from Ms Ell’s eyes but from the majority of the audience.

She deftly changes into a summer dress to become Rosie, cheekily exchanging niceties with a chap in the front row; 17 years old, but still attached to her pets. And just when you think all’s well, she opens a piece of paper simply entitled Mum and Dad, and she reads out loud what she has written. And that’s the starting point for fresh tears, a liberally opened packet of paracetamol, and the inevitable result of too much teenage pressure.

It’s an incredibly moving piece, performed as an absolute tour de force. If you’ve been affected by thoughts of suicide, either by yourself or loved ones, you may want to think twice about seeing this play because it pulls no punches. It’s so beautifully done, but with some truly hard moments. At just over 20 minutes, this must be one of the shortest plays around, but quality beats quantity and its impact surely outweighs the time spent watching it. Unforgettable.