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 – 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