Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.

Review – Shrapnel, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 2nd November 2016

ShrapnelI blame Mr Smallmind. I was perfectly happy seeing all those wonderful professional productions at the R&D and the plethora of other theatres within easy reach of Northampton. Then he said I should broaden my vision and catch some of the University of Northampton Acting students’ shows. Start gently with the March shows in the Royal. Get in deeper with the Flash Festival productions. Now I’ve turned really hardcore, as I accompanied the aforesaid bad influence on my first visit to Isham Dark (isn’t that one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets? Darn well should be) and Shrapnel, a play devised by the students through their own experiences, observations and research of life on the streets in Northampton.

Lewis HodsonThe programme notes describe it as an unapologetically sprawling vision of contemporary street life. That’s a really good description. The acting space at Isham Dark lends itself perfectly to this purpose, as we the audience look across the stage in transverse at other audience members looking back at us – as though they are our mirror reflection as we observe what’s going on in front of us. And, separating us, where the action is, the 19-strong cast suggest an overall landscape of hundreds of people coming and going about their daily business; and specifically, about 30 or so people whose lives intertwine over the course of approximately 36 hours.

Jessica BridgeStructurally – yes, it’s sprawling. At 2 hours without an interval I could have done with a pause halfway through, because it’s an intense show with lots to look at and my legs could have done with a stretch. What begins as a very diverse experience, with many seemingly unrelated characters just living their day to day existence, grows in force as you realise the hidden relationships beneath the surface. For example, you discover that person a) is person b)’s brother and person c) is in a difficult relationship with person d) and person e) is, in fact, a dog.

Connor McReedyYou could almost break the play down into individual playlets, some of which are very strong in their own right – either because of the acting, or the text, or just the impression they are trying to achieve. I loved the conversation between Jack and the girl who isn’t his girlfriend (Emmy? Can’t quite remember – very hard when the names aren’t in the programme!) but whom he’s trying to impress, when he’s concealing the fact that his super new job is a chugger. It’s very funny, quite touching, and indeed, I felt his embarrassment! I loved the night-time scene when all the homeless people get together and create a virtual living room out of just a rug and a welcome mat; that scene showed me something completely new about homelessness that I’ve never considered before – very challenging stuff. And I loved the scene where the two rival chugging teams have a stand-off, each trying to out-threaten the other, apart from the two newbies, who naturally want to have a good intercollegial friendship; very funny, and I can absolutely believe the truthfulness of that situation. I loved, although that’s not the right word, the scene where a guy, who is generally neither brutal nor heartless, gets caught up in chav/machismo pack mentality and starts tormenting a homeless woman with money if she’ll lick his shoe. And I loved the challenge you face when you’re giving a homeless person some money and then you catch them using their mobile phone – they can’t really be poor, can they? All these scenes are either heartwarming, horrifying or hilarious and work exceptionally well. And I loved the way everyone recreates the sound of raindrops.

Hans OldhamWe saw the first performance, so perhaps we should look on it as a preview? There were just a couple of loose moments, although perhaps not as many as one might fear or expect; it would be great if they had a plan for when the play definitely reaches its conclusion (!) and I recommend guys that you work on a smart curtain call; it makes all the difference as to how the audience feels about the entire show and its performers because it’s the only time we get to see you as you and not as your characters.

Olly ManningHaving seen last year’s third year students perform in a few plays now, it’s absolutely fascinating to get this early glimpse into some (hopefully!) successful acting careers of the future. Of all the cast, I think only one person didn’t really convince me of their belief in their own character, which led to them giving an uneven and rather faltering performance. However, for everyone else, I totally believed in their characters, and many of them made me laugh and, perhaps more importantly in this play, made me cry. Well, very nearly.

Florence Rees-WaiteFor me a few performances really stand out as being first rate. Jessica Bridge is excellent as Harriet, a chugger with attitude – but not so much that she couldn’t be a rounded person too. She has brilliant clarity of diction and I heard and understood every word (a quality never to be underestimated!) She has (don’t take this the wrong way) a bad girl quality that is both attractive and edgy; quite a hard coating that conceals a softer centre. That really helps us to understand the sometimes contrasting and unexpected motivations of her character. I also really enjoyed the performance of Lewis Hodson as Ben, the homeless guy whose trust in mankind has completely gone, which results in his sometimes letting rip in anger against whoever he thinks has slighted him. If he’s actually based on a real life character in Northampton, I think I know the guy in question. Totally believable, with authoritative delivery and an excellent stage presence. One To Watch.

Kundai KanyamaI was very impressed with Florence Rees-Waite as the pavement artist, holding her own, beautifully, against Lee Hancock’s formidable ranting insidious git character; exuding warmth and kindness in her interaction with the other people facing hard times. She has a very expressive face – it tells great stories without having to use words. When she does speak, she has wonderful control over the pace of her speech, which gives us huge confidence in her – you tend to hang on to her every word. Hans Oldham also showed great conviction as the Jesus Man, part preacher, part mental sufferer, part street alcoholic; he paints a very sad picture of this man but again with great humanity, and you feel with genuine affection. Connor McCreedy is a charmingly naïve Jack; April Lissimore gives a very enjoyable performance as the underachieving Carly with deeper problems than we’ll ever know; I liked how Olly Manning spins from being Mr Nice Guy to Mr Vile in that very telling scene of torment; and Kundai Kanyama as Martha successfully conveys the juxtaposing motivations of being a team leader; an element of coaching and nurturing mixed with an element of JFDI. And, it turns out, with a heart of gold.

The entire cast put huge effort into creating an excellent ensemble feel, each giving each other great support on stage, and giving the audience a rewarding and fascinating insight into what a typical street sees every day. I look forward to seeing them do more throughout the year!