Review – Static, Eve Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th April 2018

StaticAh, the halcyon days of 1990. The Reunification of Germany, and the splitting up of the Eastern bloc. Iraq invades Kuwait – that’s not such a nice memory. Liverpool win the League, Manchester United with the FA Cup and Italy win Eurovision. Meanwhile, in Corby, five girls go on a rave. It’s a sad truth to reflect that in 1990 I was probably already too old to go on a rave, and I would never have been the type to find myself sorted for Es and Wizz. I’d have stood out like the same sore thumb that Emma does, introduced to the rest of the group by her friend Smush, or as she would have known her, Lily. By the way, I thought Smush was an inventively made up nickname until I consulted Urban Dictionary…

Tiffany Mae RiversCat hangs out in a church – it’s the only place she feels welcome. She may be all bravado and faux-self-confident, but deep down she’s as vulnerable as hell. She thrives on the company of her mates, and in the pecking order she’s quite high up – maybe not as high as Dani, who rules the roost with a natural authority, but certainly higher than Smush, who’s popular but can be a bit of a liability, and probably higher than Lou, who’s just too cool for school (and I expect never went to school to prove it). And then there’s Emma. What the hell did Smush think she was playing at, bringing in this posh outsider to slum it with the rest of them, with her patronising ways and financial independence?

Kate Morgan-JonesDani has a plan to make some money from the rave by doing a bit of dealing. The girls are all up for it; even Emma, because she needs to prove herself to the rest of them. But it doesn’t go to plan, and it sets in motion a sequence of events that ends up destroying the group and the individuals within it. Any romantic notion that their friendship is a testament to girl power is only a fantasy; and it’s really only Emma that survives it fully, doubtless because she has the easy way option of going back to Mummy. Static is a rather ironic title for this play, as it suggests standing still and no progress, which is certainly not the case, although any progress is definitely downhill for at least four of the girls. But if you think of the double meaning – the electricity generated by friction – and you can see that in abundance.

Ellen TrittonWhat I really loved about this production was how the cast had fully come to know their own characters. Each had enormous depth, a total understanding of their backstory, even if it wasn’t relevant to the actions of the play itself. As a result, the events of the play flowed organically and with complete credibility, so that it all felt natural and authentic. For example, it enabled that vivid and painful portrayal of how unwelcome an outsider is to a closed group – that was beautifully realised.

Georgi McKieThis confidence and understanding of their characters and material also led to great interaction with the audience, when the girls were engaging with us, offering us their drug deals and talking about what they had and what we wanted; simply put, it felt real – particularly with Emma’s ham-fisted attempts to sound drugs-savvy when she’s so much more Avenue than Street. It was also an excellent physical performance all round, with very enjoyable and convincing rave sequences, that look humorous in the cold light of day when you’re not part of the action; and also the drug taking sequences were pretty harrowing to watch, and reminded me of the brutal physicality of the current revival of Trainspotting.

Megan Leask-WaltersThe cast gave us five very enjoyable and totally believable characterisations. Kate Morgan-Jones’ Dani was dripping with tough attitude and domination throughout, her facial expressions allowing no quarter when any of the gang get out of line. Georgi McKie’s Smush had an innocent air that blinded her to the dangers of poor judgment, that made me want to shout to her to get out whilst there’s still time! Megan Leask-Walters portrayed Lou as a rather superior bully, attentive to the in-crowd whilst dishing out withering looks to her perceived enemies and jealous of any attention on others; when her fortunes faded it was completely appropriate that she just went silent as she had no more bombast left.

Static castTiffany Mae Rivers was superb as the brash but vulnerable Cat, desperate to hold on to what she’s got and driven by the need to survive. I confess I did get a lump in my throat when I thought that she had died from the drug overdose. But she is a true survivor, and that scene between her and Ms Morgan-Jones when Dani discovers Cat, was truly emotional. And I loved Ellen Tritton as Emma, a beautiful portrayal of a fish out of water, tapping into the comedy moments with great timing, but, as the play progresses, revealing the character’s inner strength and resilience.

Another very enjoyable Flash Festival production!

Review – Accused, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 7th February 2018

AccusedIt’s been 54 years since the last person was hanged in the UK, but it was as recent as 2004 that capital punishment was abolished under all circumstances. It’s the ultimate punishment, the ultimate deterrent, and has always been a source of passionate argument either in favour or against, depending on your view. But supposing you knew someone, or had to work alongside someone, or lived with someone, who had committed a crime so heinous that the State had decided their life had to be terminated? Would you loathe them for their crime? Pity them for facing their unavoidable fate? Befriend them in a last chance of human support?

Alexander Forrester-ColesThis devised play takes Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol as its inspiration, that haunting, haunted work analysing reaction to the death penalty by the prisoners. The condemned man had killed the thing he loved; but each man kills the thing he loves, so it’s a case of There but for the Grace of God. And that’s what the audience feels too; without knowing the crime that our prisoner has committed, we can’t have a truly informed reaction to his plight. And it’s the not knowing that really makes this a curiously intense and thought-provoking drama.

Jac BurbridgeWhen you arrive in the church, you’re disconcerted from the start. Should you sit in the pews? Should you sit in the choirstalls? There are various prisoners loafing their way around the chancel, but a burly guard has his back to you and you wonder, do I dare walk past him and sit down? You do. The prisoners are enjoying (if that’s the right word) their free association time, so you eavesdrop on conversations, games, petty squabbles, and so on. One solitary prisoner seems very uncomfortable in this environment; we later discover that he has a great aptitude for art and an addiction to accuracy –- thus I deduced he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Into this melting pot arrives the Accused; a man with a reputation so bad that (almost) all the other prisoners avoid him, swear at him, despise him. Only the autistic prisoner doesn’t avoid him, but only because there’s still 23 minutes of his free time left.

Kate Morgan-JonesThere are four guards, each with a different attitude to the prisoner. One detests him for what he has done, and doubtless will show him no mercy at any time he’s under his tender care. Another treats him like any other prisoner – which is with great kindness as she is the nurturing type. A third is ghoulishly fascinated by him – almost a fan – and wants to know how it feels to have your own death hovering so near. The fourth, whilst naturally an enforcer, is prepared to bend the odd rule to make his last few days more bearable.

Robert BarnesApart from Alexander Forrester-Coles, playing the Accused, and Jake Statham as the cleaner, this is very much an ensemble piece. Mr Forrester-Coles plays the role as the archetypal strong and silent type. He combines the mystery of the man with an essential dignity which was most impressive to witness. His self-protecting barriers are all up; refusing to answer questions, or to rise to the bait of taunting prisoners. But he will attack back if he identifies a weak spot in one of his critics’ characters, and as he gets closer to his death he does open up a little to reveal something of the man behind the mask. It’s a very strong and compelling performance and I was totally convinced by him. Just as the Accused is the man that everyone notices, Mr Statham was also excellent as the man no one notices, the cleaner; an outsider in a different way, talking out of turn to the audience as if we’re his mates, a kind of Everyman character. I would have liked to see more of him as the intensity of the play develops, to get his Everyman take on what’s going on, rather than just having him “bookend” the action. Technically, as not the best hearer in the world, I really appreciated the clarity of his speech which definitely helped his characterisation to shine through; a minor character but a major performance.

Radostin RadevWhat impressed me most about the piece was how extremely high the overall standard of performance was; in previous years, there have always been one or two people whose range and complexity has left just a little to be desired but this cast is the closest I’ve seen to a “dream team” since I’ve been watching these student plays.

Xara ChisanoKate Morgan-Jones stands out as the ringleader of the prisoner ruffians. Belligerent, argumentative, determined; you really wouldn’t want to cross her. Offering a very different characterisation, I thought Robert Barnes was superb as the loner prisoner; again very credible, his delivery was beautifully paced throughout, and you could see the complexity of his thought processes straining to get through his expressions. I also really enjoyed D B Gallagher’s junkie prisoner, responding with quiet desperation to any threat that endangers his access to drugs. Jac Burbidge also excelled in his variety of roles, both as the firebrand guard speechless with horror at having to deal with the Accused, and as the ever-so-helpful priest exchanging pleasantries with the executioner (a delightfully understated performance from Georgi McKie).

Georgi McKieI was very impressed with Radostin Radev as the ghoulishly fascinated guard; he played him with style, assurance and just a perfect touch of eerie nastiness. Xara Chisano’s performance as the fourth guard enabled you to see all her inner conflicts, which created a truly fascinating character from not many words; this was another very assured and realistic performance. And Ellen Tritton portrayed the well-meaning guard with great clarity and simplicity; I loved the way that whenever any of the prisoner’s rejected her help she carried on regardless without ever taking it personally – a very strong characterisation.

Jake StathamEveryone created a very memorable impression of their own characters and their part in the play. You could pick this production up and plonk it down in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe and it would make good money. I went home full of my own thoughts and responses to the issues raised by the play and the various characters. Exceptional stuff! Congratulations all!

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!