Review – Art, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2018

ArtIt was almost 16 years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last saw Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art; it was at the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) and the constantly changing cast at the time consisted of Ben Cross, Michael Gyngell and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Mrs C adored it; I liked it a lot, but I remember thinking that it lost its way halfway through. So I was keen to see how it shapes up to someone in their latish fifties in comparison with their earlyish forties.Art it's a white picture When I realised it was to be staged in the large Derngate auditorium I wondered if it was a good match; I’d have thought it was much more appropriate for the intimacy of the Royal. But, surprisingly, it works really well on a larger stage; it’s almost as though it gains a grandeur simply by virtue of space.

Art it's still a white pictureIn case you don’t know – modern art fanatic Serge has bought a painting for 200,000 Francs, and it’s a heck of a lot to pay, even for an Antios, from his 1970s period. The trouble is, the painting is just white. There are a few diagonal lines on it, and a little raised texture, but at the end of the day, it’s just white. Serge is enormously proud of it. He shows it to his friend Marc, a connoisseur of Flemish landscapes and portraits, who describes it as a piece of white shit. Art no matter which way you look at itHe shows it to their third friend Yvan, who’s not a connoisseur at all, who also recognises it as a piece of white shit but doesn’t want to offend Serge, so he tries to see in the painting all those aspects that appeal to the more cultured and experienced Serge. Yvan’s deliberate peace-keeping approach annoys the tetchy Marc; and consequently, their mutual friendship falters on the rocks.

Art things are getting heatedIn some regards the play is a fresh slant on The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the problem of whether to tell the pseud Serge that his painting, basically, has nothing on. From such a simple idea, Yasmine Reza (in a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton) created a very deep and telling play about the nature of friendship, cultural superiority, art versus reason, fact versus fantasy, truth and falsehood, and the power of language. Words like deconstruction become a weapon in the struggle to establish a pecking order between Serge and Marc (Yvan’s already miles behind); the phrase the way she waves away cigarette smoke, for example, becomes a much more interesting sentence than the concept itself.

Art Marc has lost his sense of humourThat all sounds very dry and dusty but the reason this play ran for eight years in the West End is because it is so incredibly funny; and it also lends itself superbly to the strengths of a range of actors, each of whom can develop their characters in a way that suits the individual performer. In a sense (and soz if this sounds pretentious) each character is a blank canvas on which the actor can paint his own personality, providing it falls roughly within the guidelines of Marc = pedantic, Serge = artistically pompous, Yvan = ordinary Everyman. This touring production has a terrific cast, who capture our attention from the start and give three brilliant performances.

Art Serge has made a dreadful mistakeDenis Lawson gives a superb performance as the irascible Marc, with a clipped, no-nonsense delivery and the confident air of someone who always sees things in black and white (white mainly in this play). Nigel Havers is hilarious from the start as Serge, with his brilliant facial expressions and desperate need for approval from the others. Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan is a wholly recognisable account of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who frankly couldn’t give a toss about the painting but does care deeply about his friends. All three work together incredibly well.

Art Yvan's getting marriedThere’s a scene towards the end that really challenges the audience as to how they feel about a) valuable paintings, b) this particular painting and c) to what extent you would trust your friend to do the right thing. When the friend doesn’t do the right thing, the gasp of horror from the audience is deafening. And then, the scene concludes with the biggest belly laugh of the night. Beautifully performed, and masterfully created by Reza/Hampton.

Art Nigel Havers and Denis LawsonSo how did this shape up, sixteen years since I last saw it? I thought it was brilliant. I got much more out of it this time; I’m not sure if that’s because of the performances or my own greater maturity (no honestly), but whatever, I’d really recommend this show. This Old Vic production has already been on a fairly extensive tour and has just three more stops after Northampton, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Canterbury. You must go!

Art by numbersP. S. By the end of the play I realised that I had become rather attached to the painting. There was something about its texture and essential whiteness that resonated within me. Maybe that Antios was on to something. However, I did see it more as a £29.99 job from the TK Maxx Home department than 200k.

Production photos by Matt Crockett

Review – Persecuted, United-Force Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Flash Festival11th May 2005. The Iraq War at its bloodiest. Tony Blair’s move to topple Saddam Hussein had been initially successful, but the fallout was now telling. In a camp in Basra, British troop commander James Farrell and his Lieutenant, Dan, find themselves with the vital task of interrogating Mohammed bin Osama bin Laden, the son of the Al-Qaeda leader, to ascertain the details of an imminent attack.

Persecuted twoThere’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying goes. James favours a Softly, Softly approach, luring the terrorist into a false sense of security, dropping the emotional hot brick of an update on his wife and kids, teasing out the truth as a psychological victory. Dan, on the other hand, favours the threat of violence and punishment, and thinks torture is the only sure way to get what they want. But Dan has his own reasons for revenge; he attributes the death of his father to the terrorists, so this time it’s personal. Together they adopt a kind of nice cop, nasty cop tactic, crossing between each other to unsettle the suspect. But it’s not working, and the terrorist knows he’s winning. When he sees his two interrogators at each other’s throats with despair at their lack of progress, his mind is made up to stay silent. Shoot me and make me a martyr is his goading wish.

PersecutedThis is a very powerful play, with great characterisations and performances from actors whose work I’ve already admired, in The Accused, and The Night Before Christmas. Alexander Forrester-Coles is excellent as James, clearly an officer by birthright, with an innate nobility and natural authority. You can almost see his brain whirring away as he works out the best way to outwit the terrorist, and there’s no mistaking his clipped irritation when things don’t go his way. Chris Tyler is also superb as Dan, with his redoubtable physical presence being put to great use as he dominates the wretched terrorist and tries to dominate his senior officer – who’s having none of it. Radostin Radev makes up the cast as the silently mocking Bin Laden Jnr, sticking to his story of being an honest farmer, singing verses from the Koran, alternating perfectly between innocence and insolence; and being on the receiving end of the most vicious stage combat when Dan can hold back no more.

Radostin Radev and Chris TylerI say stage combat; there’s a fine line to be drawn between performing this vital and difficult skill perfectly, and getting it wrong. Nothing looks more risible than a stage fight where it’s so obvious that no one’s touching anyone; they may as well be doing ballet. On the other hand, there’s the kind of stage combat where the hits are clearly landing, and landing hard. In the course of the torture, Mr Radev is, inter alia, smashed over the head with a tin tray that buckles with the force and has his head plunged several times into a bucket of water. Not so much stage combat as…, well, combat. Whilst it was incredibly effective to look at, and really brought the tension to a head, I couldn’t help but wondering where acting ended, and assault began. I asked Mr Radev afterwards how much he hurt, and he replied quite a bit! I’m not sure how well received the idea of that kind of physical pain would go down if the cast members weren’t mates too. Just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind – unlike the nagging ache at the top of Mr Radev’s head.

The brutality of the events on stage were echoed by the brutality of some of the images on the accompanying video clips; I know that Iraq is hardly playing doctors and nurses but maybe the selection of some of the video was a little more forceful than it needed to be – at least without some prior warning. If they were trying to shock us, it worked.

A production that maybe lacked just a tiny bit of finesse, but with absolutely no questioning the commitment of the cast or the dramatic intensity of the piece, which was riveting throughout. Great work!

Review – An Error in the Medley, Carousel Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 26th April 2018

Flash FestivalThere’s a scene in Tom Kempinski’s play Duet For One, loosely based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and which I remember reduced me to tears when I saw it back in 1980, when the musician Stephanie, who can no longer play the violin because of her disability, bawls her heart out to her psychotherapist. “Music is the purest expression of humanity there is”, she affirms, and I was strongly reminded of that theory when watching Carousel Theatre Company’s An Error in the Medley, a one-woman play performed by Amelia Renard.

An Error in the MedleyWe find ourselves in an exclusive salon, having an audience with a young musical phenomenon, Leonie Owens. Miss Owens is a composer extraordinaire, with (one presumes) a catalogue of great achievements for her young years, and fanning a desire to soothe the fevered brow of the general populace with her amazing skill. Will she play for us? No, rather like Princess Anne said many years ago, she doesn’t do tricks. Maybe she would be so kind as to just pick out a few notes to give an example of how music can soar and bring light to others? (Hence my memory of Duet for One, mentioned above). Just a few then; and she falters at the keyboard. She graciously allows a short Q&A to follow, but is quickly thrown by the preponderance of questions about her parents. Why are they concentrating on them, rather than her? It’s just not fair!

The big question that the promotional text poses is just how far can a dream take you? Leonie’s desire to become a great composer has blinded her to the fact that she can’t actually play. It’s all a fantasy, which falls apart when subjected to the simplest questions. When exposed as a sham, she can only see one noble way out of the mess she’s created for herself.

Amelia RenardMs Renard has devised a fascinating character; pompous, faux-refined, patronising, and with an ugly superiority complex. When the mask slips, she’s just an ordinary young woman with dreams way beyond her ability. It’s a very good performance; I loved the arrogant tone with which she gave voice to Leonie’s pontificating. It was only a shame that there wasn’t something a little more substantial to the play. It wasn’t enough just to see Leonie being Leonie; we needed to observe her actively do something. It starts with a long pause, whilst she’s getting her CDs in order; and there’s another long pause in the middle, between the showdown with the audience’s questions and the confession that it’s all a lie – and these pauses, with her back to the audience so we couldn’t see her facial expressions, unfortunately served to reduce the drama rather than heighten it. The end result was like a tiny two-act play in miniature; fragile, delicate, and like Lady Macbeth’s candle, out too briefly.

There’s the basis of a really good play here, but I think it just needed a little more work and exploration to capture our attention fully.

Review – Romeo and Juliet, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 1st May 2018

Romeo and JulietThere’s an argument for believing that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time; although maybe they’re too young, and in love too briefly, to lay claim to that accolade in full. Of course, today, to be termed a Romeo is more of an insult than a compliment. It implies all show and no commitment; possibly a roving eye and a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude. True, Shakespeare’s Romeo starts off in love with Rosaline (Juliet’s cousin, so he was always attracted by those damned Capulets) but all it takes is just one glimpse of Juliet, and Rosaline’s toast. Funnily enough, no one ever gets called a Juliet, by comparison.

R&J9Erica Whyman’s new production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a few stand-out and inventive aspects. It toys with sex and sexuality to an extent that I’ve not really seen done seriously in a Shakespeare play before. For example, both recent productions of Julius Caesar that we’ve seen over the last year or so have featured a female Cassius, which was interesting inasmuch that it shows that a woman can be just as good a lead conspirator as a man – no real surprise there. But in this production, we go one (or possibly several) steps beyond.

R&J5Escalus, Prince of Verona, is played by a woman, Beth Cordingly. She’s a no-nonsense, strict ruler who has to act decisively to keep the peace between those pesky Montagues and Capulets; but she’s always referred to as a Prince, and it’s a strong, authoritative performance from Ms Cordingly. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend and cousin of Escalus, is also played by a woman, Charlotte Josephine. The character is always referred to as “she”, so she’s definitely female, although they haven’t gone down the line of feminising the name into Mercutia. This Mercutio has all the blokey belligerence you’d normally expect from the role, and I guess you’d see her as something of a tomboy. I wasn’t expecting this characterisation, and at first I confess it irritated me a little, but as I got used to her, I appreciated that she had as much right to be part of the gang as anyone else. It was a challenge to me, and one that caught me out at first – and that’s definitely my bad.

R&J12Benvolio, on the other hand, is still played by a man, Josh Finan, but with a mancrush on Romeo as a big as a rainbow coloured unicorn. Bally Gill’s Romeo comes across as 100% straight, and doesn’t remotely notice how Benvolio has to catch his breath and fan himself after he plants a big excited smacker on Benvolio’s lips. Mr Finan gives an excellent performance as Benvolio and really highlights the difficulties of being gay in a very straight group. These modern interpretations certainly bring the play bang up to date and help our understanding of these characters and the issues they face.

R&J4But a play like Romeo and Juliet is nothing if it doesn’t speak clearly to its audience. No degree of directorial embellishment, no manipulation of the text to support weird clever-clever theories, or re-imagination of the play in another time or place simply because we’ve got some great props can make the slightest bit of difference if the story isn’t told simply, from the heart, and true to the original. I’m so glad to be able to report that this Romeo and Juliet is about as clear as you can get.

R&J1At least, that’s true after the first fifteen minutes or so. For the first scene we are bombarded with a cacophony of lines from a bunch of people whom we know nothing about and I was instantly lost. To be fair I think this was the Chorus’ speech that begins Act Two of the play; but the alert amongst us realised we were only at Act One. I felt harangued and deliberately confused, and feared the worst for the rest of the night. Warring factions started to form; Montagues and Capulets, no doubt, literally thumbing their nose at each other and then running away like naughty schoolkids. I blame the parents. Romeo’s caught up in this bunch of idiots; a lot of street-fighting, anger, teasing and generally bad behaviour. I thought we’d skipped Romeo and Juliet and gone straight to the gang violence of West Side Story but without the songs.

R&J2However, once it had all settled down, and we’d been introduced to the youthfully ebullient Juliet (Karen Fishwick), her gossipy, fussy and slightly coarse Nurse (Ishia Bennison) and her hands-off, hesitant and generally inadequate mother (Mariam Haque), the production just took on its own life force and thrilled, delighted and horrified its way through the next two and a half hours, never taking a wrong turn. Tom Piper’s design consists of a box. That’s all there is. You can move it around so that it becomes a cave, or Juliet’s balcony, or the Capulet Family Tomb, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a box. And the simplicity of that reflects the simplicity of the story-telling, enabling the audience’s imagination to fill in all the blanks, which is just how I like it.

R&J7But it’s all about R & J, isn’t it? Two incredible, first rate performances that make you laugh and (almost) cry; certainly that remind you of your younger days when you used to make a fool of yourself over someone you fancied, and how you were horrified when your new-found love didn’t go down well with the rest of the family. Bally Gill’s Romeo is the embodiment of that chap that all the girls want to be with and all the guys want to be like; bright, great company, funny and hideously good looking to boot. As he sidles up to the Capulet garden party only to veer away at the last minute through embarrassment you know this is someone you can identify with. Montague or Capulet, he’s our Romeo. We’re completely on his side. And for Shakespeare purists, when it comes to his delivering the classic lines of poetical love, he’s as eloquent and passionate as you could wish.

R&J6And he’s matched by a sensational Juliet in the form of Karen Fishwick; if you think Juliets should be all pure and demure, think again. Ms Fishwick plays her as a spirited wild child, full of adventure, a giggling provocatrice who can’t wait to start living and loving – provided it’s with the man she chooses. When her domineering father sets her up with Paris – to be wed a few days after her cousin Tybalt has been killed (and awkwardly having already married his murderer) – you won’t believe the fit of fury that overtakes Juliet, pounding the cushions with flailing fists, shrieking her refusal to comply. You can see where she gets this hot-headedness from; her father Lord Capulet disciplines her with a substantial roughing-up that takes you by uncomfortable surprise – a very good physical performance there by Michael Hodgson.

R&J3I loved Ishia Bennison’s kind-hearted, meddlesome but very knowing Nurse, who created a good deal of comedy out of her characterisation. Andrew French gave a perfect portrayal of Friar Laurence, just the kind of cleric you would want as your own family priest; understanding, non-judgmental and with a sense of humour – the kind of person you could confide in. Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt is a figure of intimidating power, although no match for Romeo’s fancy footwork with a knife; and I really liked Afolabi Alli as Paris, a refined, polite characterisation but showing just that flash of sleaziness as he relishes the prospect of getting Juliet between the sheets.

R&J11An intelligent yet accessible production of what may be considered the ultimate tragedy, yet retaining a brilliant lightness of touch to reflect the youthful aspirations of its characters. Hugely entertaining, and you leave with a much deeper insight into the characters than you had before. It’s in the Stratford repertoire until 21st September then in the Barbican repertoire from November to January 2019. Highly recommended!

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – Out of Shot, Periscope Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 26th April 2018

Flash FestivalIt goes without saying the domestic abuse is an appalling crime. What is it that can turn a strong, loving husband and wife unit into a minefield of violence and cruelty, both physical and mental. Each partner can accuse the other of all sorts of despicable acts, but if a secret video could be set up, to capture what actually happens between the two of them, that would be proof positive to identify the guilty party. Wouldn’t it? Maybe sometimes it’s what happens out of shot that is the more revealing.

Out of ShotPeriscope’s gripping little thriller is an intense and terrifying play involving the investigations of PC Robinson into the allegations of domestic abuse at the home of Siena and Andrew. We see the happy early days, where Andrew’s sister Emily is the unconventional Best Man toasting the married couple good luck on their wedding day. We see them move into their new place and create a home together. But it’s not long till the neighbour can hear the arguments through the walls; the raised voices, the indeterminate threats. The neighbour offers Siena a safe sanctuary where she can escape the terror of domestic abuse.

Gracia Stewart-HoggExcept that she’s got it wrong. It’s Siena who’s abusing Andrew; and the moment we see her hurling him on the floor is a fantastic coup de theatre that takes your breath away. It’s she who demands that he gives her all his income, so that he has to beg for a little change to get through the week. It’s she who refuses him permission to see his family or his friends. It’s she who rings in sick for him at work, even though he wants to go. It’s she who humiliates and mentally castrates him. It’s she who delivers the blood curdling screams – not of fear, but of intimidation, as she knocks him out, kicks him in the crotch and leaves him a bloody mess on the floor.

Robert BarnesBut in interview, she’s all sweetness and light; feigning kindness towards him because he’s stressed at work, or maybe drinks a little too much; and his protestations of innocence just sound way too far-fetched to be believable. Fortunately there’s the video evidence to show exactly what happened….or is that just an elaborate charade, choreographed for the police’s benefit?

Zoe ElizabethGracia Stewart-Hogg gives a superb and, frankly, terrifying performance as Siena, her steely eyes penetrating her victim’s failing mental stability so that he doesn’t know how to react, her unhinged shrieking used as both an attack and defence mechanism, her vicious assaults creating pain and injury. It’s so easy for the casual onlooker simply to question, why did he put up with it, but Robert Barnes is also brilliant at conveying the reasons why Andrew stayed. Primarily he still loved her and wanted to help her through what he would have hoped to be a temporary mental illness on her part. I have to say, my heart went out to him! Zoe Elizabeth takes the other roles and is particularly impressive in the part of Andrew’s irreverent sister Emily, trying to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the relationship; and as the firm but not entirely fair police officer.

A scary play that would make you very nervous about committing to a relationship! I hope Mr Barnes wore lots of padding.

Review – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Static, Eve Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th April 2018

StaticAh, the halcyon days of 1990. The Reunification of Germany, and the splitting up of the Eastern bloc. Iraq invades Kuwait – that’s not such a nice memory. Liverpool win the League, Manchester United with the FA Cup and Italy win Eurovision. Meanwhile, in Corby, five girls go on a rave. It’s a sad truth to reflect that in 1990 I was probably already too old to go on a rave, and I would never have been the type to find myself sorted for Es and Wizz. I’d have stood out like the same sore thumb that Emma does, introduced to the rest of the group by her friend Smush, or as she would have known her, Lily. By the way, I thought Smush was an inventively made up nickname until I consulted Urban Dictionary…

Tiffany Mae RiversCat hangs out in a church – it’s the only place she feels welcome. She may be all bravado and faux-self-confident, but deep down she’s as vulnerable as hell. She thrives on the company of her mates, and in the pecking order she’s quite high up – maybe not as high as Dani, who rules the roost with a natural authority, but certainly higher than Smush, who’s popular but can be a bit of a liability, and probably higher than Lou, who’s just too cool for school (and I expect never went to school to prove it). And then there’s Emma. What the hell did Smush think she was playing at, bringing in this posh outsider to slum it with the rest of them, with her patronising ways and financial independence?

Kate Morgan-JonesDani has a plan to make some money from the rave by doing a bit of dealing. The girls are all up for it; even Emma, because she needs to prove herself to the rest of them. But it doesn’t go to plan, and it sets in motion a sequence of events that ends up destroying the group and the individuals within it. Any romantic notion that their friendship is a testament to girl power is only a fantasy; and it’s really only Emma that survives it fully, doubtless because she has the easy way option of going back to Mummy. Static is a rather ironic title for this play, as it suggests standing still and no progress, which is certainly not the case, although any progress is definitely downhill for at least four of the girls. But if you think of the double meaning – the electricity generated by friction – and you can see that in abundance.

Ellen TrittonWhat I really loved about this production was how the cast had fully come to know their own characters. Each had enormous depth, a total understanding of their backstory, even if it wasn’t relevant to the actions of the play itself. As a result, the events of the play flowed organically and with complete credibility, so that it all felt natural and authentic. For example, it enabled that vivid and painful portrayal of how unwelcome an outsider is to a closed group – that was beautifully realised.

Georgi McKieThis confidence and understanding of their characters and material also led to great interaction with the audience, when the girls were engaging with us, offering us their drug deals and talking about what they had and what we wanted; simply put, it felt real – particularly with Emma’s ham-fisted attempts to sound drugs-savvy when she’s so much more Avenue than Street. It was also an excellent physical performance all round, with very enjoyable and convincing rave sequences, that look humorous in the cold light of day when you’re not part of the action; and also the drug taking sequences were pretty harrowing to watch, and reminded me of the brutal physicality of the current revival of Trainspotting.

Megan Leask-WaltersThe cast gave us five very enjoyable and totally believable characterisations. Kate Morgan-Jones’ Dani was dripping with tough attitude and domination throughout, her facial expressions allowing no quarter when any of the gang get out of line. Georgi McKie’s Smush had an innocent air that blinded her to the dangers of poor judgment, that made me want to shout to her to get out whilst there’s still time! Megan Leask-Walters portrayed Lou as a rather superior bully, attentive to the in-crowd whilst dishing out withering looks to her perceived enemies and jealous of any attention on others; when her fortunes faded it was completely appropriate that she just went silent as she had no more bombast left.

Static castTiffany Mae Rivers was superb as the brash but vulnerable Cat, desperate to hold on to what she’s got and driven by the need to survive. I confess I did get a lump in my throat when I thought that she had died from the drug overdose. But she is a true survivor, and that scene between her and Ms Morgan-Jones when Dani discovers Cat, was truly emotional. And I loved Ellen Tritton as Emma, a beautiful portrayal of a fish out of water, tapping into the comedy moments with great timing, but, as the play progresses, revealing the character’s inner strength and resilience.

Another very enjoyable Flash Festival production!