Review – Leviticus, Not Aloud Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, The Deco, Northampton, 3rd April 2019

Flash FestivalWith the appalling news coming from Brunei of the intended execution, including stoning, of the LGBT population, there’s never been a more fitting time to bring this discrimination and violence to the attention of the general public through theatre. The Brunei situation has come about through the extreme application of Sharia Law; but closer to home there are plenty of instances of discrimination against LGBT people, citing faith as the source. For example, religious-based frenzy about teaching primary school children about LGBT sex education has gone sky high, in a deliberate distortion of the excellent work of the No Outsiders programme which actually has nothing to do with sex, and is all about living together in harmony.

LeviticusFrom some parts of Christian society, we’ve all heard the mantra, it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Far be it from me to question those people who still believe in the Garden of Eden, but times do move on. Leviticus may indeed say that it is a sin: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); but it also says you shouldn’t shave your beard or have a tattoo. You don’t see theological protests up in arms about that.

Bethany RayNot Aloud Ensemble’s imaginative and stimulating new play, Leviticus, takes four characters, each with their own secrets and issues, who find themselves idling their time in a waiting room. It’s not long before we realise this is God’s Great Waiting Room – purgatory. There’s the troubled, anxious young man with a short temper; the pious, Bible reading cleric who becomes angry each time the Lord’s name is taken in vain; the sulky teenager who likes to see how far she can push the others before she irritates them; and, new recruit, the glamorous Californian who can’t stand a silence and who acts as a catalyst for the others to open up. The three women each have a criminal past, which is presumably why they’re still waiting years – decades, even – for their Final Judgment. Each also reveals her own homophobia during the play. The fourth’s only crime was to love another man, and to get bludgeoned to death in a homophobic attack for his pains.

Samantha TurnerI don’t want to spoil the details of this excellent play for others, but I was impressed at how everyone’s backstory was slowly revealed, and came to explain the reasons why they were in purgatory. It’s a finely crafted, well written script, and brings the best out of its cast of four. Each character also has a musical moment – all beautifully, tenderly sung – and whilst you wouldn’t exactly call this Leviticus – The Musical, that extra element added depth to each of the characters and helped us understand their motivations and emotions.

Bethan MediBethany Ray is fantastic as the extrovert, verbose American, trying to dominate the proceedings as best she can, revealing her brittle interior whenever the brash exterior mask slips. To balance, Samantha Turner is also excellent as the introverted, lighter-obsessed teenager, who revels in being a pest and flies off the handle whenever pushed. This could easily have been a stereotype character, but Ms Turner made her into a very real, believable creation. Bethan Medi gives a very strong performance as the dour, puritan cleric, beyond distraught that her life of devotion has led her to sharing purgatory with such irreligious wretches. And Thomas van Langenberg gives a very clear, emotional delivery of the man who is furious that his life has been brought to an end by the ignorance and savagery of others.

Thomas van LangenbergIn addition to the play and performances, the staging is superb with some very effective and heart-stopping use of lighting, and the musical accompaniments were exquisite. I’ve only got one slight quibble with the play; the placard moment, I felt, was an unnecessarily unsubtle addition to what was otherwise a very skilful and profound work, which had already conveyed the messages on the placards much more eloquently. But that is a minor quibble! This is a fine production, sharing an important message and superbly performed. I loved it!

P. S. Also, congratulations on creating a programme that was interesting and informative to read!!

Review – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths