Review – A Splice of Life, Ripple Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalThere are all sorts of ways in which a family can be created. Whilst there are still plenty around, the traditional template of Mum and Dad and 2.4 children is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Solo parenting, children born by IVF, adoption, same-sex parents, only children, are all on the increase.

A Splice of LifeSay hello to Mark and Kate. We see their first meeting, their first kiss; we see them moving into their first home, and we see them struggling to have children. Two unsuccessful rounds of IVF later and they have run out of money. But the medics have a solution – albeit an unconventional one. If they’re prepared to help with a genetic trial – which means they will have the ability to choose twelve genes for their unborn baby such as sex, eye colour, physical strength, health attributes – they get their IVF for free. For wannabe mum Kate it’s temptation beyond endurance.

Kit WilesYears later they’re a family of four. He’s got greying hair, she’s still youthful, and they’ve got adopted son Luke and IVF daughter Sophie. Like any family they have their ups and downs, but they all co-exist reasonably happily. Sophie has dedicated her life to running; if she maintains her form, she will become Olympic standard. But one day she discovers the paperwork relating to the genetic trial. And her reaction? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Meredith BarnettThis is a fascinating, extremely well-written play that asks a lot of questions about medical ethics and “playing God”. It’s peppered with great insights and engaging relationships; scenes of argumentative drama, quickly contrasted with unexpected humour. It didn’t play with my emotions much, but it really appealed to my intellect (such as it is), and makes you question yourself as to your own responses to the issues faced by the characters.

Ryan GreendaleThere are some very strong and mature performances, particularly from the female members of the cast. Kit Wiles plays Kate with supreme confidence and an absolute understanding of what the character is all about; skittish and goofy as a young woman, self-possessed and full of life experience as the older mother. I loved her performance and appreciated how well she was able to develop her character in front of us. Meredith Barnett also turns in a superb performance as the youthful Sophie, whose comfortable world is turned upside down as she discovers that her identity has been plucked off a shelf by her parents before she was born. She absolutely conveys a sense that she no longer knows who she is, and that she is no longer in charge of her own personality. You the audience realise what a painful discovery it would be to have the same loss of self, as though you had been manipulated by your parents from birth. Ms Barnett gives an assertive and immensely watchable performance.

Tim MedcalfRyan Greendale gives us a strong impression of the father figure who wants to protect his wife and family at all costs but also needs a little peace and quiet to get on with his work. His splendid confrontational scene with Ms Barnett’s Sophie is a gripping piece of drama, where he must explain his actions from the past, sometimes defending the indefensible, sometimes pinpointing her unreasonableness. There are no wrongs or rights here; it’s a moral dilemma and you can make your own decision – if you dare. Completing the quartet, Tim Medcalf makes the most of the more peripheral role of the mercurial Luke, with an enjoyable touch of arrogance and a capricious flair.

Stimulating and dramatic, and with some great flashes of humour – nobody expected Britney Spears – this is an excellent production with some great performances. Congratulations to all!

Review – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths