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

DNAFor the first time, the Final Year Actors at Northampton University have been invited to present their plays in London, at the Jacksons Lane Theatre in Highgate, which is an exciting opportunity to be seen in the Capital City with all its obvious attractions (although performing on the stage of the Royal in Northampton is not to be sneezed at either).

Jason Pile as AdamThe first of these plays is DNA, a one-act play by Dennis Kelly, that originally saw light of day as part of a National Theatres Connections season. It’s a smart, surprising and rather disturbing play where a group of teenagers commit an act of atrocity on another teenager, with apparently disastrous consequences. How far will they go to cover up their crime, and, after multiple lies and deceits, does there come a time simply to stop digging?

Tiffany Mae RiversI must be honest, gentle reader; at first, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this. The play started with some artistic movement where all the cast loomed and merged together from different parts of the stage for some significant meaning that totally passed me by. Whilst I appreciate the skill, it didn’t (for me) add to the story-telling or character-understanding in any way. The older I get, the more I feel that life is too precious to waste. Just get on with the play!

Maddy OgedengbeAnd then the early parts of the play itself seemed rather difficult for the audience to get a grip on what was going on, and I was feeling a little frustrated at the rather stagey, unnatural speech patterns. But then, after a short time, everything just clicked into place. The play, through this eloquent and revealing production, offers an alarming insight into pack mentality and the abuse that can exist between friends – both physical and mental.

Amelia RenardRunning throughout the play is a central storyline of the needy relationship between Leah and Phyl, who’s clearly the boss of the outfit. Leah constantly seeks Phyl’s approval, her input, her recognition; and Phyl delights in refusing to acknowledge her at all. In the end, Leah cannot take this any more and so packs her bags and escapes; and the final scene shows Phyl, sans Leah, still tight-lipped, but no longer through dominance, but through a sad emptiness. Tiffany Mae Rivers gives a stunning performance as the garrulous Leah, burbling and murfling her way through life, filling every silence with needy drivel; and Maddy Ogedengbe is excellent as the stony-faced, insolent Phyl, buttering her waffles with controlling cruelty. The whole play balances on this relationship and it works superbly well.

Zoe ElizabethThe whole cast put in a great ensemble effort, but I particularly enjoyed the upstart rivalry to the Phyl regime offered by Zoe Elizabeth as Rikki, the “good girl” frustration of Amelia Renard’s Danni who sees her prospect of dental training going up in smoke, and Georgi McKie’s belligerent Lou. Big credit to Katie Lawson for taking over the role of Bryony at short notice and making the character chillingly unhinged.

Georgi McKieThis is a play where the characters’ thoughts run away with themselves before their mouths have the chance to catch up with them; as a result there are lots of half-formulated sentences, and phrases left hanging in the air. It’s a tough job to make them sound convincing and natural but the cast did an excellent job of conveying the flow of concentration whilst still making it sound sense.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production and thought everyone did sterling work! Congratulations to all.

Review – Static, Eve Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th April 2018

StaticAh, the halcyon days of 1990. The Reunification of Germany, and the splitting up of the Eastern bloc. Iraq invades Kuwait – that’s not such a nice memory. Liverpool win the League, Manchester United with the FA Cup and Italy win Eurovision. Meanwhile, in Corby, five girls go on a rave. It’s a sad truth to reflect that in 1990 I was probably already too old to go on a rave, and I would never have been the type to find myself sorted for Es and Wizz. I’d have stood out like the same sore thumb that Emma does, introduced to the rest of the group by her friend Smush, or as she would have known her, Lily. By the way, I thought Smush was an inventively made up nickname until I consulted Urban Dictionary…

Tiffany Mae RiversCat hangs out in a church – it’s the only place she feels welcome. She may be all bravado and faux-self-confident, but deep down she’s as vulnerable as hell. She thrives on the company of her mates, and in the pecking order she’s quite high up – maybe not as high as Dani, who rules the roost with a natural authority, but certainly higher than Smush, who’s popular but can be a bit of a liability, and probably higher than Lou, who’s just too cool for school (and I expect never went to school to prove it). And then there’s Emma. What the hell did Smush think she was playing at, bringing in this posh outsider to slum it with the rest of them, with her patronising ways and financial independence?

Kate Morgan-JonesDani has a plan to make some money from the rave by doing a bit of dealing. The girls are all up for it; even Emma, because she needs to prove herself to the rest of them. But it doesn’t go to plan, and it sets in motion a sequence of events that ends up destroying the group and the individuals within it. Any romantic notion that their friendship is a testament to girl power is only a fantasy; and it’s really only Emma that survives it fully, doubtless because she has the easy way option of going back to Mummy. Static is a rather ironic title for this play, as it suggests standing still and no progress, which is certainly not the case, although any progress is definitely downhill for at least four of the girls. But if you think of the double meaning – the electricity generated by friction – and you can see that in abundance.

Ellen TrittonWhat I really loved about this production was how the cast had fully come to know their own characters. Each had enormous depth, a total understanding of their backstory, even if it wasn’t relevant to the actions of the play itself. As a result, the events of the play flowed organically and with complete credibility, so that it all felt natural and authentic. For example, it enabled that vivid and painful portrayal of how unwelcome an outsider is to a closed group – that was beautifully realised.

Georgi McKieThis confidence and understanding of their characters and material also led to great interaction with the audience, when the girls were engaging with us, offering us their drug deals and talking about what they had and what we wanted; simply put, it felt real – particularly with Emma’s ham-fisted attempts to sound drugs-savvy when she’s so much more Avenue than Street. It was also an excellent physical performance all round, with very enjoyable and convincing rave sequences, that look humorous in the cold light of day when you’re not part of the action; and also the drug taking sequences were pretty harrowing to watch, and reminded me of the brutal physicality of the current revival of Trainspotting.

Megan Leask-WaltersThe cast gave us five very enjoyable and totally believable characterisations. Kate Morgan-Jones’ Dani was dripping with tough attitude and domination throughout, her facial expressions allowing no quarter when any of the gang get out of line. Georgi McKie’s Smush had an innocent air that blinded her to the dangers of poor judgment, that made me want to shout to her to get out whilst there’s still time! Megan Leask-Walters portrayed Lou as a rather superior bully, attentive to the in-crowd whilst dishing out withering looks to her perceived enemies and jealous of any attention on others; when her fortunes faded it was completely appropriate that she just went silent as she had no more bombast left.

Static castTiffany Mae Rivers was superb as the brash but vulnerable Cat, desperate to hold on to what she’s got and driven by the need to survive. I confess I did get a lump in my throat when I thought that she had died from the drug overdose. But she is a true survivor, and that scene between her and Ms Morgan-Jones when Dani discovers Cat, was truly emotional. And I loved Ellen Tritton as Emma, a beautiful portrayal of a fish out of water, tapping into the comedy moments with great timing, but, as the play progresses, revealing the character’s inner strength and resilience.

Another very enjoyable Flash Festival production!

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!