Review – A Servant to Two Masters, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

A Servant to Two MastersFrom a play held in such high reverence that one dare not tinker with it at all (The Crucible), to the complete opposite! Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters was written in 1746 and keeps coming back in different guises, most notably recently in Richard Bean’s hilarious and amazingly successful adaptation, One Man Two Guvnors. Its characters are largely taken straight from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with Trufaldino the servant as the Harlequin character, the aged merchant Pantaloon, the pompous Doctor Lombardi, Brighella the keeper of the tavern, and the high-class lovers (here as Clarice and Silvio). The tradition involved a great deal of jokey asides, plenty of interaction with the audience, music and dance.

Doctor, Pantaloon, Silvio and ClariceThis Final Year Students production was directed by the creative and brilliant Mr Frank Wurzinger, whom I still remember as the superb Doctor Zee in Flathampton. I still have his prescription for a vodka shot. I can think of few people more suited to bringing this kind of play to life. There are, however, two aspects of the direction that I think didn’t help the presentation of the show. In the centre of the large acting space of the Jacksons Lane Theatre they created a smaller space – a raised platform where 95% of the activity took place. This was in front of an equally small, closed, proscenium arch curtain. Whilst this may have given absolutely the right impression of a theatrical staging, it also reduced the acting space and made it feel really cramped and claustrophobic. There were also two small trampolines either side of the stage, which the characters/actors had either to bounce on, or bounce off, to enter or leave the acting space. Whilst this initially was an amusing quirk, and I understand it can be a way of creating additional energy with the characters’ entrances, it actually did nothing to serve the purpose of the play other than to reduce the acting space even further. I didn’t sense that the trampolines gave our cast any additional energy. Only Robert Barnes, as the drunken Florindo waiting for his food, used the trampoline entry/exit to additional comic effect with a drunken bounce.

Terrell OswaldIn retrospect, this was always going to be a very difficult play to get right, requiring massively strong ensemble playing and split-second choreographic precision. I had high hopes for this, but I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. For this to work it needed to be as slick as a tub of Brylcreem, but regrettably much of it was quite slapdash, sacrificing accuracy for madcap. And while half the cast nailed it, the other half spent the evening pulling out those aforementioned nails.

Emilia OwenThe one person who was absolutely supreme on that stage, and gave the best performance I’d seen him give, was Terrell Oswald, who invested the Pantaloon with just the right amount of dignity and pomposity so that when his world turns upside down it’s genuinely funny. A superb stage presence, perfect timing, and, as always with Mr Oswald, an unexpectedly agile physical performance. First rate. My other “personal best performance” award would go to Emilia Owen as Clarice; brilliant facial expressions, an excellent balance of portraying the character’s true emotions as well as fulfilling the commedia dell’arte stock role, and terrific vocal command. A really enjoyable performance.

Robert BarnesRobert Barnes never fails to provide a polished performance and his Florindo was accomplished and technically strong, as he persisted with the serious nature of the role whether he was screaming drunk or made to look ridiculous, covered in a face-pack with accompanying cucumber. And Jac Burbidge played the otherwise dullish character of Silvio with a well-balanced mixture of courtliness and cheekiness that never strayed into self-indulgence. I enjoyed Bryony Ditchburn’s performance as Beatrice but I did get heartily sick of the sock and two apples down the front of the pants. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s I Never Do Anything Twice: “once, yes, once for a lark; twice, though, loses the spark”.

Jac BurbidgeThere was a lot of good in this production, but at the end it felt like it had been bogged down by a ragged end-of-term mentality that I didn’t share. Still, there were plenty of laughs and it went down very well with the audience, so what do I know?

Review – Out of Shot, Periscope Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 26th April 2018

Flash FestivalIt goes without saying the domestic abuse is an appalling crime. What is it that can turn a strong, loving husband and wife unit into a minefield of violence and cruelty, both physical and mental. Each partner can accuse the other of all sorts of despicable acts, but if a secret video could be set up, to capture what actually happens between the two of them, that would be proof positive to identify the guilty party. Wouldn’t it? Maybe sometimes it’s what happens out of shot that is the more revealing.

Out of ShotPeriscope’s gripping little thriller is an intense and terrifying play involving the investigations of PC Robinson into the allegations of domestic abuse at the home of Siena and Andrew. We see the happy early days, where Andrew’s sister Emily is the unconventional Best Man toasting the married couple good luck on their wedding day. We see them move into their new place and create a home together. But it’s not long till the neighbour can hear the arguments through the walls; the raised voices, the indeterminate threats. The neighbour offers Siena a safe sanctuary where she can escape the terror of domestic abuse.

Gracia Stewart-HoggExcept that she’s got it wrong. It’s Siena who’s abusing Andrew; and the moment we see her hurling him on the floor is a fantastic coup de theatre that takes your breath away. It’s she who demands that he gives her all his income, so that he has to beg for a little change to get through the week. It’s she who refuses him permission to see his family or his friends. It’s she who rings in sick for him at work, even though he wants to go. It’s she who humiliates and mentally castrates him. It’s she who delivers the blood curdling screams – not of fear, but of intimidation, as she knocks him out, kicks him in the crotch and leaves him a bloody mess on the floor.

Robert BarnesBut in interview, she’s all sweetness and light; feigning kindness towards him because he’s stressed at work, or maybe drinks a little too much; and his protestations of innocence just sound way too far-fetched to be believable. Fortunately there’s the video evidence to show exactly what happened….or is that just an elaborate charade, choreographed for the police’s benefit?

Zoe ElizabethGracia Stewart-Hogg gives a superb and, frankly, terrifying performance as Siena, her steely eyes penetrating her victim’s failing mental stability so that he doesn’t know how to react, her unhinged shrieking used as both an attack and defence mechanism, her vicious assaults creating pain and injury. It’s so easy for the casual onlooker simply to question, why did he put up with it, but Robert Barnes is also brilliant at conveying the reasons why Andrew stayed. Primarily he still loved her and wanted to help her through what he would have hoped to be a temporary mental illness on her part. I have to say, my heart went out to him! Zoe Elizabeth takes the other roles and is particularly impressive in the part of Andrew’s irreverent sister Emily, trying to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the relationship; and as the firm but not entirely fair police officer.

A scary play that would make you very nervous about committing to a relationship! I hope Mr Barnes wore lots of padding.

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!