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 – 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!