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 – Beneath It All, Balance Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Flash FestivalIt’s traditional to say that the best years of our lives are when we are kids; and with that they tend to mean from our earliest memories up till the teenage years. Once you hit the terrible teens, your hormones start throbbing, your face comes out in spots, you’re working out who you fancy, and schoolwork becomes harder and harder. No thanks, I wouldn’t want to go through that again. Balance Theatre’s Beneath It All examines the lives of three young people, one of whom has had it tough but for whom life seems to be getting better; another who seems to have had too much responsibility too young and for whom life is getting tougher; and a third who seems to be totally unaffected by all those teenage angsts and is merrily sailing through life. As this play makes clear, we’re all different.

Beneath It AllCharlie is first seen in a wheelchair; he has a backstory of problems that are hinted at but never explicitly stated, which helps create a fascinating character. Say the wrong thing to him and it can really cause him anguish. He’s clearly a fish out of water in Big School, with no one to help him find the right classroom for the next lesson. He relies heavily on older sister Natalie, who tries to boost his confidence and keep him on the right track, although as he develops he resents being mothered. Natalie, too, relies heavily on him, as she’s been looking after him rather than finding the time to develop her own identity. So when he gains independence – and a girlfriend – she’s left alone, with an unwanted pregnancy and a reliance on the bottle. Meanwhile her friend Cecily, with her bright humour and gentle kindness, becomes the link between the two. The company is called Balance Theatre and it is Cecily who is the pivot – imagine her at the centre of the see-saw with Charlie and Natalie at the ends, one up in the air, the other down on the ground, then vice versa; only she could provide the balance for all three.

Oliver FranksThis is a beautiful portrayal of the awakening of young love. Oliver Franks as Charlie vividly captures all those anxieties and confusions, from his first secret sexy dream to those early bashful looks and tentative touches and the mixture of horror and delight that is the awkward school dance. It’s a superb performance that makes you laugh and makes you shudder with your own embarrassed memories. He also strongly suggests Charlie’s mental instability without ever making the nature of it obvious, which intrigues us and makes us want to know more. His reaction when Elizabeth Ferreira’s Cecily jokingly wonders if his sexy dream involved him raping her was quite shocking; you can’t tell if he’s just feeling guilty about the dream, or indeed whether there was some suggestion of some scandal in his past that we don’t know about. All very intriguing.

Elizabeth FerreiraMr Franks and Ms Ferreira have great chemistry together and their physical closeness for the dream sequence was very touching and emotional. She conveyed splendidly her character’s self-confidence with a very assured performance; she too is learning about sexual attraction, but takes it in her stride with giggly joy. Alexandra Pienaru is very effective in showing Natalie’s ability to placate and comfort her brother whilst needing reassurance herself, which he’s not mature enough to provide. For me, the vision of her nursing her bottle of wine in tears was the most emotionally outstanding moment of what is a very emotional play.

Alexandra PienaruIf I have a small criticism, it would be that, as the audio dynamics in the church can be unreliable, sometimes the intimate conversations between the two women were a little too quiet to be fully heard a few rows back. But overall it was a very well performed, and very engrossing play and I really enjoyed it. Congratulations all!

Review – Canterbury Tales, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 8th February 2018

Canterbury TalesI think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.

Alexandra PienaruThe Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.

Anna GallagherFor me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!

Ceara CoveneyI was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.

Oliver FranksDespite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.

Chloe HoffmeisterMany of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.

Canterbury TalesSo, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?

Review – Cinderella, University of Northampton Final Year Acting Students, Maidwell Theatre, Northampton, 14th December 2017

CinderellaFor the first time, my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind and I found ourselves in the curious position of seeing a traditional panto staged by the Final Year Acting Students of the University of Northampton. With panto seemingly as strong as ever in the affections of the British public, it makes perfect sense for the Acting Students to be put through their panto paces and learn the necessary skills for this most fun-based, and regular-incomed, of all stage entertainments. Oh no it doesn’t? Oh yes it does.

Ceara Coveney9.45 am is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen a stage production kick off, and that’s even after four years of rigorous attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time of day a gentleman of my years might not be quite so open to outrageous ugly sisters and hard-up barons; but not so for the 60-odd attendees from a local primary school, who were young enough to be totally entranced by the magic of panto, but also old enough to reject sub-standard performance and material. So, quite a tricky demand on the actors.

Chloe HoffmeisterThings were perhaps a little slow to start whilst the young audience were working out in their heads at what point they should respond to what was happening on stage and how loudly they should be doing it. Let’s face it, that’s a skill that many adults don’t possess. Bryony Ditchburn’s enchanting Fairy Godmother opens the show to set the scene of fairyland, and to introduce us to our sad slave of a scullery maid, Cinderella, played by Ceara Coveney. Ms Coveney gives a kindly, winning performance; her caring for the hungry mouse shows just how kind and thoughtful she is. She also blossoms stunningly into the Princess Crystal (not that she was given that name in this version).

Zoe MayallOn their first appearance, Chloe Hoffmeister’s sprightly and spirited Dandini faces the task of cheering up Zoe Mayall’s Prince Charming, which she does by means of an earwormingly irritating song about Charming Cheese that remains stuck in my head several hours later. I think Ms Mayall is at a disadvantage by playing a character down in the dumps at this early stage, because we were wanting a really lively kick-start to the show to capture our attention, but instead we got a gloomy prince. However, her interaction with the audience does improve and we do share in her delight at finding someone who will love her for who she (he) is, and not just because of her title – a nice moral message there.

Mo SamuelsThe arrival of the Ugly Sisters really perks up the show. Elouise (Mo Samuels) and Ermintrude (Chris Tyler), argue petulantly much to the delight of the kids, who were more than prepared to boo them at the drop of a hat. Mr Samuels performs Elouise as a graceless lout but who just might turn winsome if the right prince were to come along at the right time. Mr Tyler’s Chris TylerErmintrude is a rough-as-guts, dumb-bell wielding, date from hell who gives us lots of well-executed and funny pratfalls. Their wallpaper pasting scene is definitely the highlight of the show, both of them throwing themselves (literally) into getting stuck in the paste and terrifying the kids with the prospect of getting a bucket of water thrown over them – (relax, it doesn’t happen.)

Alexandra PienaruAlexandra Pienaru really accentuates the wicked with her portrayal of Cinderella’s stepmother, all ghastly wig and screechy bossiness. It’s a good, fun performance and she handled her two (yes two, that’s unfortunate) wardrobe malfunctions with effortless ease, striking up an off-the-cuff conversation with the audience whilst backstage sought a pair of scissors to cut her out of her first costume.Oliver Franks I enjoyed Oliver Franks’ performance as Buttons, coming over as an extremely likeable bloke (I feel I should let Buttons know that the good guys never get the girl). He did have a slight tendency to rush a few of his lines; whether that was sheer nerves at the sight of all those kids (can’t blame him) or eagerness to get through the exposition so that we could get to the physical comedy quicker, I don’t know.

Tiffany Mae RiversHal Gallagher’s very laid-back Baron Hardup is almost too subtle and underplayed for us to appreciate the characterisation, and sadly the custard pie sequence didn’t really work, because there wasn’t really any purpose to it. However, Tiffany Mae Rivers and Liza Swart strike just the right note as the Brokers’ Men Mutt and Jeff,Liza Swart making the most of their scene-changing duties, and gaining an excellent rapport with the kids who were on their side right from the start. Perhaps the most memorable pairing of the show is the hilarious dancing between the enormous Mr Samuels and the diminutive Ms Swart. The spirit of Little and Large lives on.

The kids clearly loved it, and a very funny and festive atmosphere abounded. Good work, Third Year Actors, this was a tough ask and you rose to the challenge!