Review – The Crucible, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

The CrucibleFor the second production of our day seeing all three of the Acting Students’ final plays in London, they gave us their performance of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible. This piece is one of the defining moments in the history of 20th century drama. Perceptive, shrewd, and enormously powerful, it took the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and presented them to its 1950s audience as a reflection of the Macarthyism that was decimating American society at the time. In these current days where, once again, society is being tested on both sides of the pond, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to revive it.

Ceara Coveney as Elizabeth ProctorAs it is such a significant play, and almost uniquely amongst the best drama created in the last 100 years, I think there is a tendency to treat The Crucible with great reverence. I’ve seen it a few times now, both on stage and on TV, and it always comes across exactly the same; dark, portentous, gloomy, – a true recreation of the 1690s in all its desolate desperation. There’s a huge temptation to concentrate on the supernatural spookiness of witchcraft as a force for evil and the triumph of darkness over light; to be honest, I’m not sure if it is possible to do it any other way. Certainly, Nadia Papachronopoulou’s production is as traditional as ever.

Alexander Forrester-ColesSadly it also felt very static; which is no way to describe the escalation of events that happen during the four acts of this play. We go from childish pranks and secret relationships, through the questioning, distrust and imprisonment of various innocent bystanders, to individual acts of heroism and unjustified instances of capital punishment; that hardly sounds like a static play. But I got very little sense of plot progression and I must confess at times I found it very hard to stay focussed. Farrah DarkTrue, it wasn’t helped by the noisy chattering and giggling of a group of students in the audience. It may well have been their first experience of live theatre; no better time then, to learn how to behave when you’re out. But I just felt that the production was a little risk-averse and very predictable; it might have benefited from some big, bold, unexpected statement that never quite happened.

Oliver FranksNevertheless, there were some good performances; I very much enjoyed Farrah Dark’s portrayal of Abigail Williams, a defiant woman although still little more than a child herself, concealing past indiscretions by employing the old tactic that attack as the best form of defence. Oliver Franks also gave a strong performance as the grim Reverend Parris, a man driven by self-interest, way in excess of any Christian love. The main role of John Proctor was given a determined and powerful performance by Alexander Forrester-Coles, bringing out both the character’s nobility and fallibility. His wife, Elizabeth, was played with immaculate sensitivity by Ceara Coveney; Naomi EllD B Gallagher gave a truly menacing performance as the wicked Judge Danforth; and there was a nicely understated performance by Naomi Ell as Ezekiel Cheever, the diligent but essentially kindly court clerk. Surprisingly, a few cast members seemed a little imprisoned by their roles rather than liberated by them – which was unfortunate because I know they’re great actors from their previous performances! There were also a few instances where some lines were garbled and just weren’t delivered in the assured manner that I would have expected.

Not an outright triumph, but nevertheless enjoyable, and it told its story clearly and with some memorable scenes.

Review – Screw You, Sonder Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd April 2018

Flash FestivalIt only seems a few months ago that I enjoyed (and I really did!) the 2017 Flash Festival but, here it is again, all bright and shiny and ready to entertain for another year. There are twelve shows on offer for 2018, and, with any luck, Mr Smallmind and I will get to see all of them. I’m expecting keyboard arthritis by the end of the week.

Screw YouFirst up was Screw You, performed by the Sonder Ensemble in an intimate little studio upstairs at Hazelrigg House. Inspired by last year’s upsetting reports of epidemic sexual harassment in the entertainment industry that centred on the Harvey Weinstein revelations, Ceara Coveney, Gemma Leigh and Katie Lawson have assembled a fascinating, emotional and disturbing piece that takes verbatim accounts from some of the victims and weaves together an exposé of institutionalised harassment.

Ceara CoveneyIt’s largely a collection of accounts by women and men approached by sexual predators who can get them just the right job opportunity if they play along with their sordid game. For a time last year we were all reading these accounts in the papers and online every day, and after a while the regularity and frequency of these appalling stories lessened their impact and unfortunately made the subject almost mundane. But the shock of hearing these accounts is far greater when someone is standing in front of you and relating these intimidating and terrifying ordeals in person.

Gemma LeighThe three actors have created a superb ensemble piece bringing these stories to life through a range of characters. You see how some people cope with these experiences through humour; others are simply so broken by the devastation of what’s happened to them that they can barely string a sentence together. The effect of watching and hearing these accounts at close hand is very powerful.

Katie LawsonTechnically it was a great performance; all three actors have superbly clear enunciation, so it was a joy to listen to, and I also admired how they created a physically intriguing show from what could otherwise be quite static material. Whilst one person is telling their story the other two might be acting out public reactions, or performing some intimate mime, giving an indication of the physical harassment involved. With the help of some newspaper cuttings on the backdrop, and using only three stools, they gave depth to their shallow stage area and formed creative spatial relationships, which really helped to convey the material to the audience. All three also showed off an excellent command of accents, with some very effective North American and Antipodean voices in there.

At just 25 minutes long it fully endorses the old phrase that brevity is the soul of wit. Punchy, painful and poignant, this drove home the horrors of sexual harassment in both the entertainment industry and also out there in real life. A clear and angry voice in support of the #metoo victims. Great work!

Review – Canterbury Tales, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 8th February 2018

Canterbury TalesI think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.

Alexandra PienaruThe Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.

Anna GallagherFor me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!

Ceara CoveneyI was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.

Oliver FranksDespite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.

Chloe HoffmeisterMany of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.

Canterbury TalesSo, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?

Review – Cinderella, University of Northampton Final Year Acting Students, Maidwell Theatre, Northampton, 14th December 2017

CinderellaFor the first time, my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind and I found ourselves in the curious position of seeing a traditional panto staged by the Final Year Acting Students of the University of Northampton. With panto seemingly as strong as ever in the affections of the British public, it makes perfect sense for the Acting Students to be put through their panto paces and learn the necessary skills for this most fun-based, and regular-incomed, of all stage entertainments. Oh no it doesn’t? Oh yes it does.

Ceara Coveney9.45 am is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen a stage production kick off, and that’s even after four years of rigorous attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time of day a gentleman of my years might not be quite so open to outrageous ugly sisters and hard-up barons; but not so for the 60-odd attendees from a local primary school, who were young enough to be totally entranced by the magic of panto, but also old enough to reject sub-standard performance and material. So, quite a tricky demand on the actors.

Chloe HoffmeisterThings were perhaps a little slow to start whilst the young audience were working out in their heads at what point they should respond to what was happening on stage and how loudly they should be doing it. Let’s face it, that’s a skill that many adults don’t possess. Bryony Ditchburn’s enchanting Fairy Godmother opens the show to set the scene of fairyland, and to introduce us to our sad slave of a scullery maid, Cinderella, played by Ceara Coveney. Ms Coveney gives a kindly, winning performance; her caring for the hungry mouse shows just how kind and thoughtful she is. She also blossoms stunningly into the Princess Crystal (not that she was given that name in this version).

Zoe MayallOn their first appearance, Chloe Hoffmeister’s sprightly and spirited Dandini faces the task of cheering up Zoe Mayall’s Prince Charming, which she does by means of an earwormingly irritating song about Charming Cheese that remains stuck in my head several hours later. I think Ms Mayall is at a disadvantage by playing a character down in the dumps at this early stage, because we were wanting a really lively kick-start to the show to capture our attention, but instead we got a gloomy prince. However, her interaction with the audience does improve and we do share in her delight at finding someone who will love her for who she (he) is, and not just because of her title – a nice moral message there.

Mo SamuelsThe arrival of the Ugly Sisters really perks up the show. Elouise (Mo Samuels) and Ermintrude (Chris Tyler), argue petulantly much to the delight of the kids, who were more than prepared to boo them at the drop of a hat. Mr Samuels performs Elouise as a graceless lout but who just might turn winsome if the right prince were to come along at the right time. Mr Tyler’s Chris TylerErmintrude is a rough-as-guts, dumb-bell wielding, date from hell who gives us lots of well-executed and funny pratfalls. Their wallpaper pasting scene is definitely the highlight of the show, both of them throwing themselves (literally) into getting stuck in the paste and terrifying the kids with the prospect of getting a bucket of water thrown over them – (relax, it doesn’t happen.)

Alexandra PienaruAlexandra Pienaru really accentuates the wicked with her portrayal of Cinderella’s stepmother, all ghastly wig and screechy bossiness. It’s a good, fun performance and she handled her two (yes two, that’s unfortunate) wardrobe malfunctions with effortless ease, striking up an off-the-cuff conversation with the audience whilst backstage sought a pair of scissors to cut her out of her first costume.Oliver Franks I enjoyed Oliver Franks’ performance as Buttons, coming over as an extremely likeable bloke (I feel I should let Buttons know that the good guys never get the girl). He did have a slight tendency to rush a few of his lines; whether that was sheer nerves at the sight of all those kids (can’t blame him) or eagerness to get through the exposition so that we could get to the physical comedy quicker, I don’t know.

Tiffany Mae RiversHal Gallagher’s very laid-back Baron Hardup is almost too subtle and underplayed for us to appreciate the characterisation, and sadly the custard pie sequence didn’t really work, because there wasn’t really any purpose to it. However, Tiffany Mae Rivers and Liza Swart strike just the right note as the Brokers’ Men Mutt and Jeff,Liza Swart making the most of their scene-changing duties, and gaining an excellent rapport with the kids who were on their side right from the start. Perhaps the most memorable pairing of the show is the hilarious dancing between the enormous Mr Samuels and the diminutive Ms Swart. The spirit of Little and Large lives on.

The kids clearly loved it, and a very funny and festive atmosphere abounded. Good work, Third Year Actors, this was a tough ask and you rose to the challenge!