Review – Persecuted, United-Force Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Flash Festival11th May 2005. The Iraq War at its bloodiest. Tony Blair’s move to topple Saddam Hussein had been initially successful, but the fallout was now telling. In a camp in Basra, British troop commander James Farrell and his Lieutenant, Dan, find themselves with the vital task of interrogating Mohammed bin Osama bin Laden, the son of the Al-Qaeda leader, to ascertain the details of an imminent attack.

Persecuted twoThere’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying goes. James favours a Softly, Softly approach, luring the terrorist into a false sense of security, dropping the emotional hot brick of an update on his wife and kids, teasing out the truth as a psychological victory. Dan, on the other hand, favours the threat of violence and punishment, and thinks torture is the only sure way to get what they want. But Dan has his own reasons for revenge; he attributes the death of his father to the terrorists, so this time it’s personal. Together they adopt a kind of nice cop, nasty cop tactic, crossing between each other to unsettle the suspect. But it’s not working, and the terrorist knows he’s winning. When he sees his two interrogators at each other’s throats with despair at their lack of progress, his mind is made up to stay silent. Shoot me and make me a martyr is his goading wish.

PersecutedThis is a very powerful play, with great characterisations and performances from actors whose work I’ve already admired, in The Accused, and The Night Before Christmas. Alexander Forrester-Coles is excellent as James, clearly an officer by birthright, with an innate nobility and natural authority. You can almost see his brain whirring away as he works out the best way to outwit the terrorist, and there’s no mistaking his clipped irritation when things don’t go his way. Chris Tyler is also superb as Dan, with his redoubtable physical presence being put to great use as he dominates the wretched terrorist and tries to dominate his senior officer – who’s having none of it. Radostin Radev makes up the cast as the silently mocking Bin Laden Jnr, sticking to his story of being an honest farmer, singing verses from the Koran, alternating perfectly between innocence and insolence; and being on the receiving end of the most vicious stage combat when Dan can hold back no more.

Radostin Radev and Chris TylerI say stage combat; there’s a fine line to be drawn between performing this vital and difficult skill perfectly, and getting it wrong. Nothing looks more risible than a stage fight where it’s so obvious that no one’s touching anyone; they may as well be doing ballet. On the other hand, there’s the kind of stage combat where the hits are clearly landing, and landing hard. In the course of the torture, Mr Radev is, inter alia, smashed over the head with a tin tray that buckles with the force and has his head plunged several times into a bucket of water. Not so much stage combat as…, well, combat. Whilst it was incredibly effective to look at, and really brought the tension to a head, I couldn’t help but wondering where acting ended, and assault began. I asked Mr Radev afterwards how much he hurt, and he replied quite a bit! I’m not sure how well received the idea of that kind of physical pain would go down if the cast members weren’t mates too. Just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind – unlike the nagging ache at the top of Mr Radev’s head.

The brutality of the events on stage were echoed by the brutality of some of the images on the accompanying video clips; I know that Iraq is hardly playing doctors and nurses but maybe the selection of some of the video was a little more forceful than it needed to be – at least without some prior warning. If they were trying to shock us, it worked.

A production that maybe lacked just a tiny bit of finesse, but with absolutely no questioning the commitment of the cast or the dramatic intensity of the piece, which was riveting throughout. Great work!

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!