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 – Lay Me Bare, Athena Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd April 2018

Flash FestivalAthena Theatre’s Flash Festival play, Lay Me Bare, is a three-hander that tells the stories of three different women and their experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of three unseen but violent partners. At the beginning of the play they all nurse black eyes as they stare sadly into their mirrors, trying to come to terms with the violence that has been inflicted on them. Applying makeup might make the visual evidence temporarily go away, but there’s no hiding the damage done beneath. Monica is a student, totally under the spell of TJ, in and out of prison; how will he react when he finds out she’s pregnant? Fola is a devout Christian, whose only wish is to be able to conceive a child with her husband; how will he react when he finds out she’s not pregnant? Elsie is a hairdresser, struggling to pay the bills, working hard while her Phil stays out late getting drunk, turning violent when she complains at him over his reckless behaviour. “It won’t happen again” avows his disembodied voice; does he keep his promise?

Lay Me BareHere we have three strong characterisations of the three abused women; three similar problems, but with three very different outcomes. I really enjoyed Xara Chisano’s portrayal of Monica, a very quiet, reserved, self-punishing character who has endless excuses for her boyfriend’s terrible behaviour. It’s as though he has taken away her ability to express herself and have her own identity, and you really feel the struggle as Ms Chisano tries to reassert herself and finally pluck up courage to tell TJ about the pregnancy. I have to confess I did sense a little bit of water in the eye as she portrayed his vicious reaction. Very strong stuff – but with Monica there is a small sense of hope in the final scene, which gives the play a (relatively) bright and optimistic ending.

Xara ChisanoMaddy Ogedengbe gives an emotionally charged performance as Fola; you can really feel her pain by looking at her anguished face. When she meets the doctor who confirms the blood test results, her fear and alarm is palpable. Perhaps it was a little strange that the doctor doesn’t seem to be that sensitive to her position; on the other hand, perhaps it’s no surprise, given how overworked our medical staff are. Her cries of torment are really harrowing. It was another really strong performance.

Maddy OgedengbeFarrah Dark is a spiky, hard-working Elsie who gives as good as she gets when arguing with her wretched drunken partner. I didn’t feel as though the role was quite as full or emotionally written as the other two, but her anguish was strongly portrayed and her representation of being the victim of a physical attack was very vivid and tough to watch. I also really liked Ms Dark as Monica’s friend Stacey, an ebullient and funny characterisation that lightened the otherwise tense and oppressive mood.

Farrah DarkAll three women suffer at the hands of truly objectionable and vicious men: a drunkard, a recidivist, and maybe a religious zealot? We don’t know that much about the men, and the play allows us to fill those gaps ourselves, which appeals to my sense of making the audience work a little to get the most out of the play.

There was one rather unusual aspect to how this play is presented to the audience, and that’s the manner of conducting telephone conversations. On a couple of occasions, the victim and the abuser are on a phone call together and what we the audience hear is both sides of the conversation talking, pre-recorded. Would it not have felt more natural for the victim character to speak live on stage with either pre-recorded responses or indeed, the responses being delivered live, but from off-stage? With the actor just passively listening to both sides of the conversation, stylistically it just looked and felt a bit odd.

Anyway, this is just nit-picking. The play gives us three very strong stories, eloquently told, and powerfully conveyed. Congratulations to all on a memorable production!

Review – An Anti-Panto Double Bill – The Night Before Christmas and The Flint Street Nativity, Third Year Acting Students at University of Northampton, Maidwell Theatre, Northampton, 15th December 2017

Anti-Panto Double BillIn a sharp contrast to the traditional panto of Cinderella that their colleagues performed yesterday, other members of the Third Year Acting Students at Northampton University performed two one-act plays, described as an Anti-Panto double bill. I thought that was what you had before a lasagne, but what do I know?

Jac BurbridgeWe started with The Night Before Christmas, by Anthony Neilson, a short, spikey little comedy set in a cheap gifts warehouse on the night before Christmas. Wide-boy owner Gary has caught someone lurking in the warehouse, with a bag of tools and a seemingly mischievous intent – but it turns out to be one of Santa’s elves, who’s fallen from the sledge and is now worried that the Big Man will have to cancel Christmas trying to find him. No way José is this a feeble attempt by a petty thief/junkie to explain why he was caught breaking and entering a warehouse, no sirree. Gary calls his disgruntled mate Simon to show him the elf, because, otherwise, well, you just wouldn’t believe it, would you? An unhappy customer and maybe semi-significant other of Gary’s, Cherry, also turns up and gets involved in the surreal comedy.

Radostin RadevI thought this was a whole lot of fun and all four performers were great. If you were ever going to work out an elf’s character and motivation, Radostin Radev’s hilarious take on it is about as good as you can get. With his naively simple smile, don’t hurt me body language and part childlike-part junkie accent, he made me laugh all the way through. I loved the pose he adopted in order to give his three wishes – and then his subsequent exhaustion. His performance is a perfectly pitched combination of silliness with just a hint of the sinister. Great job.

Kate Morgan-JonesJac Burbridge was also very good as Simon, dishing out the expletives like they were After Eights, striking just the right note of belligerence and disbelief; he’s technically very strong with a great confident delivery and excellent enunciation, which is always a huge bonus. I loved Kate Morgan-Jones as the upfront and extremely direct Cherry – a right nasty piece of work who gets unpleasantly excited at the prospect of torturing the elf. Her character was the soul of aggression, and she delivered it superbly.Alexander Forrester-Coles Alexander Forrester-Coles had some nice throwaway lines and asides as Gary, never missing an opportunity to do a deal with the police, and very amusingly reflecting all those awkward thoughts you’d experience if you were suddenly required to do mouth to mouth resuscitation. All in all, a really smart quartet of actors delivering a punchy piece with a great feeling for the comedy.

Farrah DarkAfter an interval, the second play was The Flint Street Nativity, a nativity performance from hell, performed by adults but as young children, with all their insecurities, hatreds, showings-off and other terrible traits. We see the preparations, and last-minute rehearsals; the vomit-inducing nerves, the off- and on-stage tantrums; the bossy gang leader who decides who from the group is and who isn’t in favour; the lisping new boy who doesn’t know the ropes; the good little girl who can be relied on to narrate the story properly; the boy who’s obsessed with spacemen; and so on. At times it’s extremely funny, and the cast worked well together as an ensemble; at times I felt the humour dragged a little and to be honest, even though it only takes about fifty minutes to perform, it felt a little overlong to me. After all, once you get the basic joke, there’s not a lot of places you can take it. But that’s my argument with the writer, not the performers.

Gemma FenshamThere were some very beautifully played performances; Farrah Dark was superb as Mary, trying so hard to be good, giving us a very effective puke-up, and fighting to hold on to her starring role despite the vengeful machinations of the horrid Angel Gabriel played very convincingly like a vicious spoilt brat by Gemma Fensham. Megan Leask-Walters gave a very good performance as the well-behaved narrator, capturing the essence of a child under pressure by means of worried expressions and awkward body language – she did a really good job.

Robert CharlesJason Pile was convincing as the obsessed spaceboy, bringing every conversation round to some form of NASA-based content – and ending up with a very funny and authentic walking on the moon sequence. Robert Charles made us all feel sympathetic for the plight of the new boy and it was a genuinely moving moment when he finally made a friend; and I did enjoy Naomi Eli’s discomfort at having to swap sides of affection depending on what she was told to do by the horrid Angel Gabriel. Robert BarnesBut for me the stand-out performance was by Robert Barnes as the Question of Sport-mad boy who relived old episodes to all and sundry ad nauseam (including his excitable interpretation of a round of applause) and who couldn’t resist looking for his parents in the audience when on-stage. Very likeable and very funny.

An enjoyable double-bill that tested the actors’ comedic skills to very good effect. Congratulations to all on two jobs well done!