Review – A Matter of Race, Zakiya Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

A Matter of RaceTwo girls, same age; different upbringings in different countries but circumstances force them both to move to England. No knowledge of each other until one day fate joins them together at an interview. What do they notice about each other? Their clothes; their potential as rivals. What don’t they notice about each other? The difference of their skin colour. They recognised their own colour much earlier in their childhood, as part of growing up, as part of acquiring their own identities. These things just are – you don’t choose, you accept them. But the other’s colour only becomes apparent after life takes a turn for the difficult. A party. A shot is fired…

Zakiya TheatreAs their story develops you realise how the media report events and people, their motivations and their integrity, differently depending on their skin colour. If responsible for a crime, the white girl will get the benefit of the doubt; the black girl will get automatic assumption of guilt. But their lives run parallel; Jessica Bichardto all intents and purposes, they are virtually interchangeable. Does innocence have a chance when faced with institutionalised racism?

A simple play with a simple message that you don’t need to me to spell out here. Performed with pinpoint accuracy by Jessica Bichard and Karr Kennedy, Karr Kennedythis is a superbly well assembled, poetic piece of writing, that both actors bring to life direct from the heart. They build up beautiful speaking rhythms and patterns, speaking in unison, speaking in time, speaking in syncopation, speaking together, speaking apart. Extremely effective and, despite the harshness of the injustice it highlights, extremely enjoyable.

Review – Pornography, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th March 2017

PornographyIt’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.

Becky FowlerOn Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.

Hans OldhamHow 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. Jack JamesThe impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.

Jamal FranklinPornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.

Jenny WatsonThis is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.

Jessica BichardWhen the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.

Joseph T CallaghanIn the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.

Karr KennedyAfter the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.

Liam FaikIn perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.

Luke MortimoreThe final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.

Olivia Sarah Jayne NoyceOverall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Samuel LittlewoodP. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.

Review – She Echoes, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 7th December 2016

she-echoesLast month I accompanied Mr Smallmind to see Shrapnel, the first of two improvised pieces by the University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at their little den of iniquity, Dark Isham, on the university campus. Now it’s time for the second show, She Echoes, again created by the students and directed by Lily McLeish. Just to set the scene, let me verbatim the director’s note for you: “Imagine for every choice you make an alternate possibility that didn’t happen splits off. Imagine being able to see all the possible outcomes of your life. Imagine the tiniest change of one day could have the most unforeseen outcome.” We’re clearly in that rather exciting world of Sliding Doors and J B Priestley memory plays, where you reach a Dangerous Corner and turn one way rather than the other; and who knows what would have happened if you’d taken the other turning. Well, in She Echoes, there’s no doubt. All the possibilities are played out very clearly, and with substantially different results.

Karr KennedyThe bare bones are these – Emily wakes up (she might oversleep, she might not); she sees her sister Claire on her way to work (Claire might be drunk, she might not); she might take the car to work (or she might walk); she gets to work (she might be late, she might not); she has either a terrible or a great day; she meets a guy who asks her out (he might be shy, he might not); she gets her hair done and arranges to go to the Red Ruby for dancing at 9 (she might be alone, she might not); she has a great night (or she has an appalling night). All the possibilities are woven very cleverly into the narrative and, with many cast members constantly changing roles you might sometimes be a little unsure of who is doing what with whom, but that just adds to the general mystery and depth of the whole piece. It’s always entertaining and always taking surprising turns, and at 70 minutes non-stop it’s a burst of energy on the stage.

Benjamin HamptonThey use two methods of showing the alternative paths that a sequence of events could take. Usually they employ the straightforward method of acting out a scene from start to finish, and then acting it out again but this time with some changes. However, the most thrilling scene in the play is in the nightclub where instead of having one sequence of events follow the other, you have one story being acted out on one side of the stage and another story being acted on the other at the same time. This visual side-by-side-ness provides a stark contrast between the two experiences and has a really high impact. The music, the costumes and some of the props suggest that the play is set in the 1920s; for example, the market crates have London 1924 stamped on them, and in one scene they discuss Prohibition in the States, and there is one excellent dance number with the whole cast which certainly has elements of Charleston (although primarily was just good fun). Apart from that, nothing else seems to relate to that era, and the conversation styles are certainly those of the modern day, so I’m not entirely sure why they chose to set it at that time. I note that Emily spends 2/- on her daily paper… how much?!! I don’t think any newspaper would have been more than a penny in those days – Moneysorter suggests an equivalent cost today would be £4.25.

Rachel Graham-BrownI don’t want to be nit-picky though. The play is structured so that each member of the cast gets their opportunity to shine and for the most part they darn well seize those chances and give us some excellent moments of theatre. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the entire performance, though, is how seamlessly each cast member integrates with everyone else; this is one of the most effective ensemble performances I’ve seen in a long time. Without a detailed programme (which, admittedly, with this play could be quite some feat to engineer) I might get a few names wrong for which I apologise in advance. I really loved the partnership between Benjamin Hampton as Pete and Karr Kennedy as Emily, when he’s so tentatively trying to touch her hand but can’t quite make it happen and she’s so desperate for him to touch her hand but can’t possibly be seen to encourage him. Anyone who’s been on an early date when you really think there might be something great in the offing but you don’t want to do the wrong thing in case you ruin it will really recognise that moment. Mr Hampton absolutely exuded that sense of reserved refinement in his characterisation throughout the show and it was a joy to watch. I also really enjoyed Ms Kennedy’s demure Emily, and her other character, that of the bubbly friend she meets in the street, who gives her the “360” look at her new hairdo – a really convincing portrayal, although not remotely 1924!

Liam FaikI also admired the style and elegance of Rachel Graham-Brown; she performs with great dignity and presence throughout and I also really liked her in the big dance number! But if there was (for me) one stand-out performance it is Liam Faik, because he most effectively conveys the wide range of all his different characterisations; as a vain wide-boy, an effeminate manicurist, but best of all as the violent drunk Pete who demands more from Emily than she wants to give and ends up fighting in the Red Ruby. His was the most believable stage fight I’ve seen in ages; some of those punches seemed to land so realistically! I guess they didn’t in reality, or else his poor adversary wouldn’t have been able to carry on (and I’m sorry but I’m not sure who played the part of his fight-enemy, but they also gave a great performance.) Mr Faik is definitely One To Watch.

A most enjoyable production, and one that (and I mean this nicely) values brevity as a source of wit as those 70 minutes are filled with excellence, but maybe if it had gone on much longer its impact would have started to weaken – so, structurally, it was superbly well judged. Great performances, many inspired examples of characterisation, and an excellent use of the stage with the big musical number. A moving play too; Mr Smallmind confessed that a speck of dust must have got into his eye at one point. Congratulations to everyone involved!