Review – The Nubian Sky, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Looking Glass Theatre, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalAfter a packed week of dramatic highs and lows – almost entirely highs, actually – we come to the last show in this year’s Flash Festival – The Nubian Sky, a solo performance by Shemelia Lewis. It’s an examination of what it is to be a black woman today. Part celebration, part revelation, Ms Lewis takes us through a number of scenarios, including a child growing up in Montserrat with strict but loving parents and only appallingly racist cartoons on TV to watch; and a grotesque TV game show, hosted by the revolting Dave, where we’re asked to judge whether a black woman who has been subjected to domestic abuse should get justice. Fortunately, our audience agreed 100% that she should; but the TV judges, whoever they were, disagreed. And at the end we see the woman in question struggling as a result of the nationwide TV disgrace – unable to keep down her job, no longer able to study, crying out to God for some comfort. Ms Lewis painted a very disturbing and uncomfortable picture on which to end the play.

The Nubian SkyThe performance is full of contrasts. On one hand, Ms Lewis is a joy to watch. She comes across as a very likeable, rather wacky individual; her characters like to dance, to have fun, and simply, quietly, to get on with their lives. Set against this is a constant undercurrent of racism; the hideous cartoon, the denial of justice, the racist terminology in the media and around her. And whilst you sense that the spirit of survival and overcoming the odds will always prevail, that final scene of despair and abandonment tells another story.

Shemelia LewisI think it could have been even more successful if Ms Lewis had taken some of the ideas further. That cartoon, for instance, could have done with some deconstructing, rather than just showing the little girl getting bored with it. There was a scene where the schoolgirl got into trouble because of her hair; I’d have liked to understand a little more about what drove the teacher to raise the issue, and how it made everyone feel. Just a thought.

It sounds odd – and lame – to say that a play about how racism affects someone can be enjoyable, but strangely this performance was very enjoyable, because of the thoughtful and amusing characterisations and Ms Lewis’ warm sense of communication. Congratulations!

Review – Rise, Workbench Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalWe’ve all been there; attending the first meeting of a group, when no one knows how many people will turn up, or what they will be like; whether you’ll get on with them, whether they’ll like you; all those recognisable little neurotic worries. Welcome to the first meeting of Rise Northampton, a non-violent action protest group that wants to raise awareness of climate change. Founder Emma is there to welcome us into the room; her friend Rod stands at the door shaking our hand; Risehe seems a friendly, if simple soul. Who else is there? Hearty well-meaning Martha, who helps at the soup kitchen twice a week; one of Emma’s ex-students, the well-informed if somewhat distant Saff; the aggressive and humourless Jeoph (son of Jeisen); and the flamboyant, cynical and occasionally creepy Freddy.

Franky HarrisAs the weeks go by, their plans for a protest take shape. But when one of them goes too far and causes a public disorder, this is too much for Emma to bear. We are all British and well-behaved, after all. But the controversy does get them noticed; and eventually, as news keeps coming in of water shortages in the major cities of the world, it occurs to them there might only be one option – what you might call the ultimate protest.

Esther BartholomewThis excellent little play succeeds on two levels. First; it was very funny! The relationships between the characters are deftly drawn as we get to know them better, although, in truth, there are some we’d probably like to know a little less! In particular, I loved the “role play” scene which created great comedy directly out of the characters’ personalities. Secondly, the play genuinely made me think more about climate change – Hannah Magrathand specifically how precious fresh drinking water is as a commodity. I personally am aware about how I tend to waste water by turning on the shower long before I get in – quite unnecessarily – and because of this play’s strong message, I’m going to stop it.

Above all, there are six enjoyable, fully-realised characterisations by six talented performers. Joseph Mattingley Franky Harris is superb as the organiser Emma, all polite and choccy-biccy to start with, filling awkward silences with utterings of pure nonsense, and putting her foot down on any language excesses or perceived hostility between the members that could discourage others in the group, just like a well-trained teacher should be. But when the situation gets drastic, she surprises us with her change of spirit. I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

Daniel HuberyEsther Bartholomew is great as Martha, delightfully self-deprecating, eager to do the right thing, and very powerful when she shows us her true commitment to the cause. Hannah Magrath gives a nicely controlled and mature performance as the aloof Sapphire, gradually warming as she becomes more involved with the group as a whole. Joseph Mattingley is hilarious as the child-like Rod, incapable of hiding his emotions at the slightest confrontation, taking everything literally, writing an appalling song that thankfully we don’t get to hear. This could have been almost a pantomime comic creation, but Mr Mattingley has created a real, very believable and vulnerable character and it is a superb performance.

Chris CutlerI loved Daniel Hubery’s argumentative, no-nonsense Jeoph; the kind of guy who has no time for small talk or concealing harsh facts with comforting lies, and not frightened of treading on anyone’s toes if that’s what it takes. We all know a Jeoph; Mr Hubery got him absolutely spot-on. And Chris Cutler is also excellent as the theatrical Freddy, throwing extravagant gestures and revelling in over-the-top metaphors. His is the character that, perhaps, undertakes the greatest journey; he almost physically changes before our eyes as he shrinks into realisation of the truth.

A very entertaining yet unsettling play with some fantastic performances – and it certainly makes you think. Congratulations all!

Review – The Cost of Freedom, Grapevine Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalOne of the great aspects of a drama festival like the Flash is the wide range of subjects and styles that the individual companies might choose to perform. You can find introverted little solo shows that concentrate on one event or one emotion; comedy two-handers that give you an insight into other people’s lives through making your sides split; domestic dramas; questions of ethics; or something like The Cost of Freedom, which explores the monumental tragedy of the lives (and indeed, deaths) of those caught up in the slave trade, still rife in America little more than 150 years ago.

The Cost of FreedomIn this play we meet a group of six people – two sisters, two men taken forcibly from the families, and a boy accompanied by an older relative (not his father, as he is at pains to point out). Try as they might to flee from capture, they are taken and threatened by unnamed white men, armed with rifles and shotguns, one of whom we see, the rest are left to our imagination. But the slaves escape from their imprisonment, and whilst on the run we get to know them a little more; their childhood memories, their hopes, their previous work and family lives, and how they got into this perilous state. When one of the men is re-captured, he is threatened with death unless he leads his captors to the other five escapees. Will he save himself, or will he save them? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

D’angelo MitchellBy means of a combination of athletic, physical theatre, unsettling darkness, emotional spiritual music and sheer fantastic acting, this ensemble have devised a haunting, terrifying, shocking recreation of the kind of horror that those poor people would have experienced in the United States during the slave trade. We feel their physical pain – and see the scars. We hear their pleas for mercy – and how they are abused. We long for them to gain their freedom – and are distressed that it doesn’t happen. Sarah AwojobiI feel no disgrace that the events and performances in this play reduced me to tears. This is the kind of production that hits you immediately in all your senses but then gets even better and better the more you think about it.

Each member of this superbly gifted cast endows their role with an incredible sense of humanity and vivid characterisation. D’angelo Mitchell’s Cato, for example,Lyric Impraim is studiously cynical, trying to control the others where possible, bitterly alone and without hope of ever seeing his family again. Mr Mitchell gives us a really strong performance that taunts your emotions and reveals so much about the nature of loyalty. Sisters Jo and Jess, played by Sarah Awojobi and Lyric Impraim, have each other’s company for support, keeping themselves to themselves, trying not to be noticed for fear of abuse. Ms Awojobi’s frightened tears and Ms Impraim’s protective stare will stay with me a long time.

Kieran JamesKieran James’ young Zeke, attempting to make sense of what has become of his life, and so vulnerable without his parents, is a brilliant portrayal of someone who has seen too much too young, and Mr James’ clumsy but heart-warming attempt to chat up the girls was one of the highlights – he is on terrific form in this play. Zeke is desperately attached to Michael Gukas’ Noah, a man who remains assertive in the face of his oppressor, and whose priority is to take care of the boy and try to guide them all into freedom. As always, Mr Gukas gives a sensational performance, combining softness and strength in his amazingly expressive voice and physical presence; he’s surely destined for Great Things.

Michael GukasAnd there’s Nafetalai Tuifua’s Nigel, the sensitive, artistic man who cannot come to terms with his change of status after playing violin for his master, now facing a fight for survival at all costs. Mr Tuifua is always a joy to watch; you cannot help but smile with his happiness and cry with his agony, and, particularly during the musical scene, he is a sublime Mr Entertainer. And a word of congratulation for the unnamed oppressor, who maintained his threatening air of cruelty throughout, even from off-stage. From my front row seat I felt completely wrapped up in every confrontation, tragedy, and indeed occasional moment of humour that befell them all.

Nafetalai TuifuaEverything about this production is impressive; not only the sheer emotion of the plot and atmosphere, but the athletic, almost balletic, physical movement of the cast, their ability to draw you in to their tale, the technical consistency and authenticity of their accents, the musicality of their spiritual, even the choice of their once smart, now ragged, clothing. This production should surely have a life after Flash – I’m sure it would be perfect for Edinburgh – and it’s a play that everyone should see in these divided times we’re facing. Superb stuff!

Review – The Way, Cosmos Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4h April 2019

Flash FestivalSometimes an uncomplicated, honest, one-person monologue can be more eloquent about the human condition than any classical four-act play. One such theatrical delight is Cosmos Theatre’s The Way. Vicky lies in bed, the morning after a night before, still with her make-up on, head pounding (although it could be worse), with no idea where she’s left her phone. Once she gets her act together there’s the inevitable voicemail from her mother. Which contains bad news. Vicky’s childhood friend – whom she hasn’t spoken to for ages because of some unspecified argument – has been diagnosed with cancer. Vicky’s devastated at what she hears. Is there any way of healing their rift?

The WayBy the time you get to my age, gentle reader, you lose count of the times when you said to yourself, “I wonder how so-and-do is doing, I really ought to get in touch”. But you don’t. And then you discover that they’ve died. And you never get that chance again. If you love someone – even if it makes you sound ridiculous – tell them. Because one day, you won’t be able to; and maybe they never knew. This is the prospect that Vicky faces; can she let her friend know that she held that dispute against her into the grave? Was it really that serious an argument?

Louise AkroydLouise Akroyd is a complete delight as Vicky. All messy and bed-worn at first, you can’t get much more unglamorous than Vicky’s initial appearance; but as we discover her personality, her inner beauty shines through. At times you wonder if she’s simply talking to herself, or if she’s addressing us directly through the fourth wall, or if it’s a mixture of the two. She has a wonderfully honest and confiding way of unfolding Vicky’s history and conflicts. Her performance is a closely-observed study of a young woman shocked into doing something she said she’d never do – and in the end, she’s so glad she did.

Simple, quiet, unassuming but full of integrity and honesty, this is a beautifully written and delivered dramatic monologue that will tear at your heartstrings. A mini-masterpiece!

Review – A Splice of Life, Ripple Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalThere are all sorts of ways in which a family can be created. Whilst there are still plenty around, the traditional template of Mum and Dad and 2.4 children is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Solo parenting, children born by IVF, adoption, same-sex parents, only children, are all on the increase.

A Splice of LifeSay hello to Mark and Kate. We see their first meeting, their first kiss; we see them moving into their first home, and we see them struggling to have children. Two unsuccessful rounds of IVF later and they have run out of money. But the medics have a solution – albeit an unconventional one. If they’re prepared to help with a genetic trial – which means they will have the ability to choose twelve genes for their unborn baby such as sex, eye colour, physical strength, health attributes – they get their IVF for free. For wannabe mum Kate it’s temptation beyond endurance.

Kit WilesYears later they’re a family of four. He’s got greying hair, she’s still youthful, and they’ve got adopted son Luke and IVF daughter Sophie. Like any family they have their ups and downs, but they all co-exist reasonably happily. Sophie has dedicated her life to running; if she maintains her form, she will become Olympic standard. But one day she discovers the paperwork relating to the genetic trial. And her reaction? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Meredith BarnettThis is a fascinating, extremely well-written play that asks a lot of questions about medical ethics and “playing God”. It’s peppered with great insights and engaging relationships; scenes of argumentative drama, quickly contrasted with unexpected humour. It didn’t play with my emotions much, but it really appealed to my intellect (such as it is), and makes you question yourself as to your own responses to the issues faced by the characters.

Ryan GreendaleThere are some very strong and mature performances, particularly from the female members of the cast. Kit Wiles plays Kate with supreme confidence and an absolute understanding of what the character is all about; skittish and goofy as a young woman, self-possessed and full of life experience as the older mother. I loved her performance and appreciated how well she was able to develop her character in front of us. Meredith Barnett also turns in a superb performance as the youthful Sophie, whose comfortable world is turned upside down as she discovers that her identity has been plucked off a shelf by her parents before she was born. She absolutely conveys a sense that she no longer knows who she is, and that she is no longer in charge of her own personality. You the audience realise what a painful discovery it would be to have the same loss of self, as though you had been manipulated by your parents from birth. Ms Barnett gives an assertive and immensely watchable performance.

Tim MedcalfRyan Greendale gives us a strong impression of the father figure who wants to protect his wife and family at all costs but also needs a little peace and quiet to get on with his work. His splendid confrontational scene with Ms Barnett’s Sophie is a gripping piece of drama, where he must explain his actions from the past, sometimes defending the indefensible, sometimes pinpointing her unreasonableness. There are no wrongs or rights here; it’s a moral dilemma and you can make your own decision – if you dare. Completing the quartet, Tim Medcalf makes the most of the more peripheral role of the mercurial Luke, with an enjoyable touch of arrogance and a capricious flair.

Stimulating and dramatic, and with some great flashes of humour – nobody expected Britney Spears – this is an excellent production with some great performances. Congratulations to all!

Review – Making their Mark, Face to Face Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalFace to Face Theatre have created a thirty-minute piece that looks at what it is to be a woman on earth. Now, as a man, I know full well that this is normally the kind of discussion that I’d much better sit out; no woman wants a bloke mansplaining their role in life. However, this play comes at it from a rather particular angle: what it’s like for a woman not to be able to conceive.

Making Their MarkAbigail is desperate for a child; but every time she falls pregnant, she miscarries. It doesn’t help that her sister is the mother of a sweet but noisy child, and gives her all those ridiculous pieces of advice like sticking your legs up in the air so that the sperm trickles up and all that palaver. And when the doctor whittles down the possibilities for going forward, it also doesn’t help that partner Mark is a bit of a Neanderthal on the subject and refuses to get sperm-tested because it’s an insult to his virility.

In the UK, if a woman is infertile, IVF is an option if you live in the right postcode or have sufficient cash. But IVF is no guarantee of parenthood anyway, and childlessness is a common, and increasingly less taboo status. But as the play points out, other parts of the world are not so relaxed about it. Girls in Afghanistan marry at 16 in order to knock out as many kids as possible as early as possible. In parts of Africa like Mali, FGM is still an appalling practice that renders sex painful and childbirth even more dangerous than it already is. In Uganda, a woman isn’t considered a woman unless she has children.

Amy Jane BakerAmy Jane Baker and Hannah Bacon have put together a thought-provoking little play that shows you the invasiveness of medical questioning, the jealousies of other people’s children, and the utter hopelessness that some women suffer. Ms Baker’s heartfelt sorrow at her character’s increasing frustrations and disappointments was very moving to watch. And Ms Bacon was suitably stiff and starchy as the clinical (in both senses of the word) doctor, the snide office colleague and the well-meaning but irritating sister.

Hannah BaconPunctuating the scenes of the story are little snippets of good housewifely advice from the 1950s – which very much proscribe that a woman’s place is in the home, and which also imply that Abigail is trying to be that kind of a woman. However, the play ends with a brief video asking members of the public what their advice is for a woman’s place in society today, which allows the play to end on a positive, upbeat note, and affirms that it’s really no longer necessary to be an Abigail. It might have been even more direct if the two performers had verbatim’d these comments to the audience, rather than showing it in video, which takes a step away from contact with the audience at the last, vital moment. Just a thought.

But it’s a very good play that takes an awkward subject and deals with it sensitively and with good humour. Congratulations all round!

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!!