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 – 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!