Review – The Crucible, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

The CrucibleFor the second production of our day seeing all three of the Acting Students’ final plays in London, they gave us their performance of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible. This piece is one of the defining moments in the history of 20th century drama. Perceptive, shrewd, and enormously powerful, it took the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and presented them to its 1950s audience as a reflection of the Macarthyism that was decimating American society at the time. In these current days where, once again, society is being tested on both sides of the pond, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to revive it.

Ceara Coveney as Elizabeth ProctorAs it is such a significant play, and almost uniquely amongst the best drama created in the last 100 years, I think there is a tendency to treat The Crucible with great reverence. I’ve seen it a few times now, both on stage and on TV, and it always comes across exactly the same; dark, portentous, gloomy, – a true recreation of the 1690s in all its desolate desperation. There’s a huge temptation to concentrate on the supernatural spookiness of witchcraft as a force for evil and the triumph of darkness over light; to be honest, I’m not sure if it is possible to do it any other way. Certainly, Nadia Papachronopoulou’s production is as traditional as ever.

Alexander Forrester-ColesSadly it also felt very static; which is no way to describe the escalation of events that happen during the four acts of this play. We go from childish pranks and secret relationships, through the questioning, distrust and imprisonment of various innocent bystanders, to individual acts of heroism and unjustified instances of capital punishment; that hardly sounds like a static play. But I got very little sense of plot progression and I must confess at times I found it very hard to stay focussed. Farrah DarkTrue, it wasn’t helped by the noisy chattering and giggling of a group of students in the audience. It may well have been their first experience of live theatre; no better time then, to learn how to behave when you’re out. But I just felt that the production was a little risk-averse and very predictable; it might have benefited from some big, bold, unexpected statement that never quite happened.

Oliver FranksNevertheless, there were some good performances; I very much enjoyed Farrah Dark’s portrayal of Abigail Williams, a defiant woman although still little more than a child herself, concealing past indiscretions by employing the old tactic that attack as the best form of defence. Oliver Franks also gave a strong performance as the grim Reverend Parris, a man driven by self-interest, way in excess of any Christian love. The main role of John Proctor was given a determined and powerful performance by Alexander Forrester-Coles, bringing out both the character’s nobility and fallibility. His wife, Elizabeth, was played with immaculate sensitivity by Ceara Coveney; Naomi EllD B Gallagher gave a truly menacing performance as the wicked Judge Danforth; and there was a nicely understated performance by Naomi Ell as Ezekiel Cheever, the diligent but essentially kindly court clerk. Surprisingly, a few cast members seemed a little imprisoned by their roles rather than liberated by them – which was unfortunate because I know they’re great actors from their previous performances! There were also a few instances where some lines were garbled and just weren’t delivered in the assured manner that I would have expected.

Not an outright triumph, but nevertheless enjoyable, and it told its story clearly and with some memorable scenes.

Review – Eight Pounds Sixty, TaBoo Productions, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th April 2018

Flash FestivalDepression, mental illness, suicide. We see the words every day and, fortunately, for most of us that’s as close as we get to understanding them. But as more and more people are becoming diagnosed with mental illnesses, and the consumption of drugs like citalopram are steadily on the rise, TaBoo Productions’ Eight Pounds Sixty is a timely reminder of what it can be like to suffer with depression and have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in this country; it’s thought to affect men more than women because women find it easier to talk, although other studies suggest that women are more successful (if that’s the right word) at committing suicide than men – men have more failed suicide attempts. Such statistics are gruesome.

Eight Pounds SixtyThis short play introduces us to two characters, 23-year-old Annie, doing well, with her own two-bedroomed flat in the best part of Buckinghamshire; and 17-year-old Rosie, a garrulous, excitable young lady with the world at her feet, or so you’d think. But Annie’s messy floordrobe is a symptom of her messed up mind, and as for Rosie – well we’ll come to her in a short while. Annie presents well. She’s happy at work (relatively – we all have idiot colleagues from time to time, but her recollections of their coffee orders are very amusing); she’s having counselling but she likes her counsellor, and citalopram gets her through the day – the Eight Pounds Sixty of the title, by the way, is the cost of a prescription. She bemoans the idiotic questions that she is required to answer for the well-meaning but overstretched NHS. But then there was the day she had to ring 111, and we hear the conversation between her and switchboard, and it’s clear she’s in trouble.

Naomi EllNaomi Ell gives a stunning solo performance, winning us over instantly with her quirky observations about her daily routines, the nicely impertinent asides about her colleagues, and her chatty reflections on her medical treatment. So it comes as a tremendous shock when the painful truth of Annie’s condition can no longer be hidden, and the tears begin to fall – not only from Ms Ell’s eyes but from the majority of the audience.

She deftly changes into a summer dress to become Rosie, cheekily exchanging niceties with a chap in the front row; 17 years old, but still attached to her pets. And just when you think all’s well, she opens a piece of paper simply entitled Mum and Dad, and she reads out loud what she has written. And that’s the starting point for fresh tears, a liberally opened packet of paracetamol, and the inevitable result of too much teenage pressure.

It’s an incredibly moving piece, performed as an absolute tour de force. If you’ve been affected by thoughts of suicide, either by yourself or loved ones, you may want to think twice about seeing this play because it pulls no punches. It’s so beautifully done, but with some truly hard moments. At just over 20 minutes, this must be one of the shortest plays around, but quality beats quantity and its impact surely outweighs the time spent watching it. Unforgettable.