Review – Drained, Open Eye Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Open Eye TheatreFamilies, eh, who’d have them? The one set of people you should always be able to rely on in times of need. The people who should pull together when the times are rough. The people who have always got your back. But it isn’t always the case. Take Laura, for instance. She’s at the heart of the family trying to keep everyone together. After their mum had died things were difficult. Older brother Jamie was hardly ever seen. Now that dad’s gone too, he couldn’t even bother coming to his funeral – just the wake, in the hope of a few free pints. Younger brother Will is more reliable, and he does give Laura some support, although he’s got boyfriend trouble of his own, and of course relationships always have to come before relations, don’t they?

Bryony DitchburnIf there’s one thing this absolutely brilliant gem of a little play tells you, it’s that when someone reaches out to you for help, don’t turn your back. Yes, they may be that annoying sibling. Yes, you may well think that they’ve caused their own problems. Yes, your time is precious and you have other commitments. But if they’re ringing you, constantly, leaving messages, getting more and more desperate, surely there’s a time when you bury whatever hatchets there were and be a listening ear. One day it may be too late.

Robert CharlesBeautifully structured over the course of a year – nicely conveyed by the change of the seasonal pub notices from Valentine’s to Summer BBQ – Laura returns again and again to the same pub table and knocks back more and more cheap rosé as her life gradually disintegrates. Friendly barkeeper Dan is there with his listening ear, but he’s got his own life to lead too. Jamie would far sooner spend time with his buffoon of a workmate Steve than his brother or sister; he’s homophobic anyway, so why should he and Will want to have anything to do with each other? And all the time, neither of them realise quite how alone Laura feels.

Jake WyattIt’s eloquently written, with a naturally evolving story and a simple but effective staging, with three fantastic performances that live on in your mind many days later. Bryony Ditchburn is compelling as Laura, continually disappointed with her warring brothers but relying on them for support; making a fool of herself in front of Dan, tearing herself apart in front of us. A superb performance. Robert Charles is also brilliant as Will, a very effective mix of self-obsessed petulant and selfless kindly. Jake Wyatt completes the threesome as the erratic and grumpy Jamie, never willing to put himself out for anyone else. The scene where Mr Wyatt confronts Mr Charles with a homophobic outburst of abuse was absolutely stunning, and an acting masterclass from both; you could hear the proverbial pin drop at the surprise shock and venom. Mr Wyatt was also very convincing as Dan, and Mr Charles hilarious as Steve, putting his foot in it with every opportunity.

This would be a brilliant play to take to the Edinburgh Festival. Funny; tragic; enormously emotional; and with first class performances. If Carlsberg made Flash Festival shows…?

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!