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 – Click Here, Stern Mystics Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th May 2017

Click HereA Parkinsons’ sufferer is drawn into crime against his better judgment simply to receive a drug to alleviate his symptoms; a young loafer is forced to work against his will for his philandering prospective brother-in-law; a neo-Nazi blogger is willingly interviewed about his beliefs, but his own life experience makes him change his opinion. These three separate strands weave together in a play that challenges perceptions of what’s right and what’s wrong, and asks, how far down the line will you go to do the wrong thing in the pursuit of the right?

Tom GarlandI have a theory that all the best works of art, literature, and so on are those where the writer/artist didn’t know where it was going to end up and let his characters decide for him. I got the feeling, as this play progressed, that this was the case with this play. I think perhaps it started with the theme of somehow exploring the dark web and its uses/users but the characters and their relationships were strong and very realistic, and I can imagine they really took control and moved the story on to a very different final place. Whether I got that right or not, I really enjoyed the journey that these actors and their characters took us on; it was fascinating to see which characters would gain redemption, which would be punished for their ills, which would get off scot-free, and so on. I found it really engrossing, and didn’t want it to end.

Tom Garland gave us a very credible characterisation of the decent, if a bit lazy, young man who ends up working for his brother-in-law-to-be only to find out that the latter drops his trousers at the first sight of skirt; but who is basically blackmailed into keeping quiet about it – not that his cantankerous father would believe him anyway. He’s a very good example of someone who is almost too decent for their own good. He also took perhaps the least interesting role, that of the journalist interviewing the neo-Nazi, but maybe it was his straightforward, open nature that allowed his interview subject to open up so honestly.

Matt KitsonMatt Kitson was excellent as the Nazi – spouting off offensive words as though they were mere platitudes – which certainly sounded uncomfortable in the church – whilst still being exceedingly polite and mild-mannered; that characterisation was a really interesting concept. I enjoyed seeing him going through his self-questioning phase, and found his final incarnation, partying with his new eastern European friend to the beat of Polski Pop, both believable and really endearing! He also did an excellent job as the Parkinson’s sufferer’s mate; the opening scene where he is trying to be supportive, despite being rejected by his friend, due to the friend’s own frustrations and anger, was totally credible and indeed I recognised myself in the same situation in the past. A very good performance.

Chris DrewPerhaps strongest of all was Chris Drew, as the guy with Parkinson’s, adopting the symptoms with true accuracy, expressing his irritation and resentment at what the disease has done to him. I loved the way he took us through the character’s trials and tribulations and how we all came out on the other side together. He was also excellent as the volatile father, refusing to listen to sense, and also in the minor roles of the Office Supervisor and the Polish Pal. For each role he adopted a clearly different voice and accent and they’re all superb.

Definitely one of the most absorbing plays in the Festival, combined with three excellent performances. Perhaps this could be developed more and maybe have a new life in the future? I would hope so!

Review – Posh, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

PoshFrom Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?

Ben BartonDespite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. Benjamin SullivanI attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.

Chris DrewActually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. Connor McCreedyAnd will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.

Daniel Ambrose-JonesNevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s Javiar Melhadocharacter, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with Jay Andrewssuperb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; Jennifer Wyndhamthere’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.

Lauren ScottConnor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Lee HancockBen Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.

Matt KitsonThere are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little Olly Manningdifferent from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. Steven CroydonAnd Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. Tom Garland There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.