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 – Global Warning, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 31st January 2019

globalwarningClimate Change and the lethal waste in our seas are definitely up there among the world’s biggest problems at the moment – and it doesn’t help that so many of the powers that be either don’t take them seriously or, even worse, deny their existence. This group of young actors from the Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at Northampton University have collaborated to create their own take on the problem and ways in which some people can help (or hinder) progress.

Nafetalai TuifuaThis show is a sequence of inter-related sketches and scenes that highlight the scale of the problem from many different angles. First, we are introduced to our keen and lively cast who parade on stage and then “assume positions” of varying degrees of artistry, from which they bawl, prance, leap, moan and all sorts of other noisy actions in between; all under the masterful watch of their wonderfully posey and pompous Director, played with dazzling humour by Ryan Greendale. They’re happy, playful little performers who all eventually die due to their contaminated environment. It instantly makes a very forceful point – although if that scene had carried on much longer it might have got a little self-indulgent.

Daniel HuberyThen we meet Gwilym, with his uphill task of keeping his herd of cows in check, as they blunder all over the stage and up into the audience. These devious cattle have a plan to increase methane production by working on their farts. This was a fun sketch, primarily as a result of their having to keep their bovine secret from Gwilym, so that every time he turns up, all untrusting-like, they revert to their traditional mooing. Very nicely done! The next sketch featured some well-meaning broccoli farmers (I assume that’s what they were) being tricked out of their land by the scheming Nafetalai Tuifua and Lyric Impraim in an enjoyable exposure of how simple folk don’t have a chance against Big Business.

Samantha TurnerAnd so the show continued. I won’t go through each and every sketch – I won’t be able to remember them all at any rate! But there were some entertaining running characters who burst forward every now and then. Hannah Magrath’s Doctor keeps a constant eye on the deteriorating double-act of Louise Akroyd’s Mother Earth and Daniel Hubery’s Poseidon (lord of the sea). This somewhat abused couple fight for breath and can’t stop the coughs as their condition gets worse and worse. There’s a highlight when Poseidon, in his snorkel and speedos, leads the cast in a big number about the pollution in the seas. I enjoy and admire how Mr Hubery is not afraid to look ridiculous in order to get the laughs! By the end of the show, Poseidon (lord of the sea) and Mother Earth have frankly given up the ghost – and the future is definitely looking grim.

Ryan GreendaleAnother recurrent character is Trevor, from the Climate Change/World Ecology think tank, a seemingly well-meaning but ineffectual chap with a serious message on how to manage the future. He gets bombarded from the audience with recyclables, and eventually is bribed by Interested Parties with cash to flash to keep his ideas to himself. It’s a good, understated performance from Joseph Mattingley, who connects extremely well with the audience.

Melissa KnottOther sketches include three nature-watchers sailing out to sea in a coffin, who marvel at the destroyed world around them – lovely performances from Fiona Moreland-Belle, Samantha Turner and Simon Roseman; a Tongan hula party brought to life by the immensely watchable Nafetalai Tuifua; and the vegan thugs who beat meat-eaters up with celery sticks. Ms Turner, again, is the ringleader of this green gang and has a quietly authoritative stage presence; she reminds me a little of a younger Jessica Hynes, which is No Bad Thing.

Kieran JamesThere’s one incredible coup-de-theatre, for which everyone should be congratulated; when the stage is transported to the sea with the use of one large sheet of tarpaulin, waving and blowing in the air, being raised over our heads, with the wind rushing and the sense of sea spray on our faces, and making the detritus on the floor look even more disgusting and criminal as a contaminated sea bed. A relatively simple device, but in effect, absolutely breathtaking and beautifully carried out.

Joseph MattingleyAll members of the cast worked their socks off as part of the big ensemble and also in their individual roles. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned I really enjoyed all the contributions made by Kieran James and Melissa Knott who were both outstanding in their stage confidence and all their characterisations; but everyone played a tremendous part in creating an engrossing show. Very enjoyable all round – and plenty to make you think about too!

Review – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths