University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting, Undergraduates 2017 Showcase Programme, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 21st June 2017

ShowcaseOver the past eight months it’s been my privilege to attend several productions featuring the 3rd Year Acting students of Northampton University. I’ve been to Isham Dark (isn’t that in The Lord of the Rings?) to see Shrapnel andShe Echoes. I’ve been to the Royal Theatre to see Posh, Pornography and Vinegar Tom. I saw all fifteen of this year’s Flash Festival shows. And I was honoured to be invited to attend their London showcase on Wednesday, where they once again showed their talent in front of an audience including many theatrical agents and directors.

Karr KennedyWhilst I also saw the 2016 bunch at the Royal and in some Flash shows, I didn’t get to see their early productions and I didn’t see their showcase. The benefit of seeing individual performers in at least four different productions is that you can really get a sense of their versatility, their strengths, their vocal abilities and so on. You can see when an individual really excels in a role, or when they rise to a challenge and really surprise you; just as sometimes you can see when someone takes an unsuitable role, or for some reason just doesn’t bring to the stage what you hope from them. I love going to the theatre – I always want to enjoy it, I always want to appreciate the best of what I see. And that is my watchword for when I write a review; I will always try to concentrate on the good, and if I have criticisms, I try to be constructive with them. But I also always have to be honest, because there’s simply no point in doing it if I’m not. As at today I think I’ve seen approximately 1450 productions – so I do have quite a lot of experience from the front stalls!

Ben HamptonThe showcase was a fascinating experience for me to witness for the first time. Almost all the students appeared in fifteen short sketches or playlets, either parts of a longer work or mini-masterpieces in their own right. It seemed to me that it was essential to make the correct choice to show off each individual’s most marketable qualities. Use of humour was important; two of the pieces were absolutely hilarious, and in both cases the four performers – Karr Kennedy and Jessica Bichard in Diary of a Madman, and Lauren Scott and Olly Manning in Beyond Therapy – came across with really top quality performances. High drama also works well: scenes with great conflict, soul searching, confrontation and argument were memorable and brought out the best in the performers: Olivia Sarah Jayne Noyce and Benjamin Hampton in a scene from Closer, Victoria Rowlands and Joseph T Callaghan in The Mercy Seat, and Steven Croydon, Connor McCreedy and Jack James in First Light all excelled here.

Becky FowlerIt’s when the scene really feels like it’s part of a much larger work that I sometimes felt the performers had a harder task to project themselves. Nevertheless, I thought that Kundai Kanyama and Ben Barton created a fascinating scenario in their scene from Let the Right One In, as did Jennifer Wyndham, Becky Fowler and Jessica Bridge in Di and Viv and Rose; both scenes were very engaging and the actors created very identifiable and believable characters. There were some quirky scenes too; Luke Mortimore and Tom Garland presenting a very disconcerting but strangely convincing scenario in Perve; and Jennifer Etherington and Rachel Graham-Brown rounding ominously on the hapless Daniel Ambrose-Jones in the picnic from hell in Morning. Regarding the six sketches I haven’t mentioned – that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them or think they were well performed, but perhaps they didn’t quite have the same impact as the others.

Victoria RowlandsIt was great to talk to so many of this year’s “team” after the show, and to hear about what plans they have for the immediate future and in which directions they hope the careers will go long term. They really are a splendid bunch of people! What I learned specifically from an alcohol point of view was that Helena Fenton is not to be trusted with any sharp movements if you have a full glass in your hand (almost a calamity), Chris Drew can’t pour prosecco for toffee and Hans Oldham was shocked when I lurched for a third glass of the aforementioned prosecco – although less so when we agreed to share the remainder of the bottle.

Liam FaikI was there with my friend and co-reviewer A Small Mind at the Theatre and he has very bravely committed to paper his award-winners for the year. Whereas last year there were a few absolutely stand-out performers that were very obviously the best, this year, for me, choosing the best is a much harder task. I’ve had a stab at selecting my favourites, but I cannot come up with a short-list that I think truly represents everyone’s capabilities. To be honest, any one person from this intake is a potential star in the making. All I can do is wish everyone the very best of luck and I look forward to following everyone’s careers in the future – and thanks again for a year’s worth of great shows!

Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.

Review – She Echoes, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 7th December 2016

she-echoesLast month I accompanied Mr Smallmind to see Shrapnel, the first of two improvised pieces by the University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at their little den of iniquity, Dark Isham, on the university campus. Now it’s time for the second show, She Echoes, again created by the students and directed by Lily McLeish. Just to set the scene, let me verbatim the director’s note for you: “Imagine for every choice you make an alternate possibility that didn’t happen splits off. Imagine being able to see all the possible outcomes of your life. Imagine the tiniest change of one day could have the most unforeseen outcome.” We’re clearly in that rather exciting world of Sliding Doors and J B Priestley memory plays, where you reach a Dangerous Corner and turn one way rather than the other; and who knows what would have happened if you’d taken the other turning. Well, in She Echoes, there’s no doubt. All the possibilities are played out very clearly, and with substantially different results.

Karr KennedyThe bare bones are these – Emily wakes up (she might oversleep, she might not); she sees her sister Claire on her way to work (Claire might be drunk, she might not); she might take the car to work (or she might walk); she gets to work (she might be late, she might not); she has either a terrible or a great day; she meets a guy who asks her out (he might be shy, he might not); she gets her hair done and arranges to go to the Red Ruby for dancing at 9 (she might be alone, she might not); she has a great night (or she has an appalling night). All the possibilities are woven very cleverly into the narrative and, with many cast members constantly changing roles you might sometimes be a little unsure of who is doing what with whom, but that just adds to the general mystery and depth of the whole piece. It’s always entertaining and always taking surprising turns, and at 70 minutes non-stop it’s a burst of energy on the stage.

Benjamin HamptonThey use two methods of showing the alternative paths that a sequence of events could take. Usually they employ the straightforward method of acting out a scene from start to finish, and then acting it out again but this time with some changes. However, the most thrilling scene in the play is in the nightclub where instead of having one sequence of events follow the other, you have one story being acted out on one side of the stage and another story being acted on the other at the same time. This visual side-by-side-ness provides a stark contrast between the two experiences and has a really high impact. The music, the costumes and some of the props suggest that the play is set in the 1920s; for example, the market crates have London 1924 stamped on them, and in one scene they discuss Prohibition in the States, and there is one excellent dance number with the whole cast which certainly has elements of Charleston (although primarily was just good fun). Apart from that, nothing else seems to relate to that era, and the conversation styles are certainly those of the modern day, so I’m not entirely sure why they chose to set it at that time. I note that Emily spends 2/- on her daily paper… how much?!! I don’t think any newspaper would have been more than a penny in those days – Moneysorter suggests an equivalent cost today would be £4.25.

Rachel Graham-BrownI don’t want to be nit-picky though. The play is structured so that each member of the cast gets their opportunity to shine and for the most part they darn well seize those chances and give us some excellent moments of theatre. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the entire performance, though, is how seamlessly each cast member integrates with everyone else; this is one of the most effective ensemble performances I’ve seen in a long time. Without a detailed programme (which, admittedly, with this play could be quite some feat to engineer) I might get a few names wrong for which I apologise in advance. I really loved the partnership between Benjamin Hampton as Pete and Karr Kennedy as Emily, when he’s so tentatively trying to touch her hand but can’t quite make it happen and she’s so desperate for him to touch her hand but can’t possibly be seen to encourage him. Anyone who’s been on an early date when you really think there might be something great in the offing but you don’t want to do the wrong thing in case you ruin it will really recognise that moment. Mr Hampton absolutely exuded that sense of reserved refinement in his characterisation throughout the show and it was a joy to watch. I also really enjoyed Ms Kennedy’s demure Emily, and her other character, that of the bubbly friend she meets in the street, who gives her the “360” look at her new hairdo – a really convincing portrayal, although not remotely 1924!

Liam FaikI also admired the style and elegance of Rachel Graham-Brown; she performs with great dignity and presence throughout and I also really liked her in the big dance number! But if there was (for me) one stand-out performance it is Liam Faik, because he most effectively conveys the wide range of all his different characterisations; as a vain wide-boy, an effeminate manicurist, but best of all as the violent drunk Pete who demands more from Emily than she wants to give and ends up fighting in the Red Ruby. His was the most believable stage fight I’ve seen in ages; some of those punches seemed to land so realistically! I guess they didn’t in reality, or else his poor adversary wouldn’t have been able to carry on (and I’m sorry but I’m not sure who played the part of his fight-enemy, but they also gave a great performance.) Mr Faik is definitely One To Watch.

A most enjoyable production, and one that (and I mean this nicely) values brevity as a source of wit as those 70 minutes are filled with excellence, but maybe if it had gone on much longer its impact would have started to weaken – so, structurally, it was superbly well judged. Great performances, many inspired examples of characterisation, and an excellent use of the stage with the big musical number. A moving play too; Mr Smallmind confessed that a speck of dust must have got into his eye at one point. Congratulations to everyone involved!