Review – Like Toy Soldiers, Chineke Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

Like Toy SoldiersIt doesn’t take much imagination to see how children can get swept up in the carnage of war. Their houses destroyed, their parents killed, their schools bombed; without their own assets or influence they are by nature among the most vulnerable sections of society. LiKE ToY SOLDiERS drives home the awful truth of children caught up in war in Africa; not only becoming the victims of the tools of war, but being forced to become child soldiers themselves. The attractions to manipulative war barons are obvious – they are fit and energetic, they won’t demand payment, their underdeveloped sense of personal assertiveness in an adult’s world and fear of reprisal will make them naturally compliant to the wishes of their superiors.

Kundai KanyamaThis short but hard-hitting play takes one such African child. We see her at home, with strict but loving parents. She panics about forgetting to do the errand for her mother because she will get into trouble and she’s the quintessential good girl. We quickly see her become a victim of war, as her family security is destroyed and she is forced into combats. We see her, armed and terrified, running alarmed at every unexpected sound. We see her forcibly raped, because children are easy meat to the vicious and the vile. And, somehow, we see her survive.

It’s a strong, clear, moving and elegant performance by Kundai Kanyama; not only telling a sad but important story but also acting as a showcase for her talents – I particularly enjoyed the lively but harrowing scene she played in a mask, for example. This is the kind of performance that lingers in your mind for a long time afterwards, as one by one so many emotions are played out, so many ghastly experiences have to be endured before our child can have a future again. Very effective, very impressive. Great work!

Review – The Time Travel Tour, Just This Guy Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

The Time Travel TourThe Time Travel Tour advertises itself as one part fast paced, historical sketch comedy, one part love letter to science fiction. Our intrepid hero takes us, Doctor Who-like, to various times in history to shed an oblique light on what was going on, and in so doing involves us in a sci-fi excursion, a day trip of potential disaster. Have you been on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland Paris? This show brought that to mind somewhat – an audience shown into a small and rather claustrophobic environment and then told to watch out for what’s about to happen – oh and this is your operator’s first day in the job. Things go wrong, we’re in for a bumpy ride – and that’s all part of the fun.

I really admire Jay Andrews’ vision for this show, and what he has created is extremely demanding on the performer, rushing on and off-stage, lots of costume changes, countless audio cues, and trying to make the content on the video wall synchronise with what’s happening on stage. He clearly put in loads of research to create an original blend of sci-fi and history; two, I must confess, of my least favourite things on this earth! Nevertheless, that was his challenge to me – to make me more interested in them. Unfortunately, I can’t say he succeeded at that, but he’s certainly not the first to fail at it either. However, even for a non-sci-fi-kinda-guy like myself, I did enjoy trying to spot a few of his references – Also sprach Zarathustra, Max Headroom, Tardis and Back to the Future.

Jay AndrewsThis is a very ambitious show that relies on split-second accuracy between the performer and his tech support. Any fractional delay between the conversational flow or the relationship between him and any sound or video effects only emphasises the artificiality of the show and stops you believing in it. In the performance I saw, the sound level of the video footage was way too quiet. You had to really concentrate hard in order to hear what was being said, and, sadly, that hard work detracted from enjoying the humour and relaxing into the show. It would also have worked better if it had been even funnier – if the punchlines had really hit home, and if the scenes from history could have been snappier and even more intriguing.

Jay is clearly a likeable guy with an engaging personality and natural comic ability. Unfortunately, I think he deserved material with more bite; perhaps fewer scenes would help him to build on his relationship with his audience and develop the ideas more. Nevertheless, congratulations on devising one of the more inventive shows of the festival; with more work and tighter tech this could grow into a very successful one-man-show.

Review – G. M. H., Stalagmite Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

GMH330 years from now, mankind has created Genetically Modified Humans – GMHs for short. If you’re uncomfortable with the thought of Genetically Modified Food – what would you think about the prospect of our genes being played about with so that we can withstand the extreme changes in the Earth’s atmosphere? There’s been a new Ice Age, and the choice was to change, or die… so…? GMHs were used to build a sustainable world for humans to inhabit. But are they also human? Robot? Something halfway between the two?

Stalagmite Theatre CompanyIt’s clear when we meet two black market scavengers at the beginning of the show that they’re part of “traditional” humankind and look on the GMH that they discover as subhuman; “it”, as one of them insists they call the GMH rather than “she”. But does there come a point where the GMH’s abilities supercede the humans’? Has man bitten off more than he can chew?

Jessica BridgeAn inventive and clever play, with three strong characters as well as the looming disembodied voice of the “boss”. Very nice use of video, with the Colossal Incorporated company calling for volunteers to become genetically modified, long before the events of the play were to unfold. Jamal Franklin and Daniel Ambrose-Jones as Jamal Franklinthe two vagabonds build up a good relationship with banter and argument so you really feel you understand how these guys work together; and the sudden arrival of a GMH in the shape of Jessica Bridge throws them into uncertainty – and not without cause. Miss Bridge is delightfully aloof, misleadingly accommodating and full of surprises. Daniel Ambrose-JonesAll I can say is, if she ever asks you to give her a shoulder massage, tread carefully.

Smartly performed, clearly delivered – and with more than one surprising twist at the end. Good work and congratulations!

Review – A Matter of Race, Zakiya Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

A Matter of RaceTwo girls, same age; different upbringings in different countries but circumstances force them both to move to England. No knowledge of each other until one day fate joins them together at an interview. What do they notice about each other? Their clothes; their potential as rivals. What don’t they notice about each other? The difference of their skin colour. They recognised their own colour much earlier in their childhood, as part of growing up, as part of acquiring their own identities. These things just are – you don’t choose, you accept them. But the other’s colour only becomes apparent after life takes a turn for the difficult. A party. A shot is fired…

Zakiya TheatreAs their story develops you realise how the media report events and people, their motivations and their integrity, differently depending on their skin colour. If responsible for a crime, the white girl will get the benefit of the doubt; the black girl will get automatic assumption of guilt. But their lives run parallel; Jessica Bichardto all intents and purposes, they are virtually interchangeable. Does innocence have a chance when faced with institutionalised racism?

A simple play with a simple message that you don’t need to me to spell out here. Performed with pinpoint accuracy by Jessica Bichard and Karr Kennedy, Karr Kennedythis is a superbly well assembled, poetic piece of writing, that both actors bring to life direct from the heart. They build up beautiful speaking rhythms and patterns, speaking in unison, speaking in time, speaking in syncopation, speaking together, speaking apart. Extremely effective and, despite the harshness of the injustice it highlights, extremely enjoyable.

Review – Broken, Out of Mind Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Salvation Army Hall, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

Out of Mind theatreThe description of this production begins: “Billy Milligan is a young man struggling with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) who is accused of crimes that he believes he did not commit. Tormented by 24 different personalities, every day is a struggle to gain control of his life….” Can you imagine that? Having that kind of racket going on inside your head? It’s not something I’d ever considered before seeing this extraordinary production and when it finished, I emerged much better informed… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cast of BrokenThis was my first time at the Salvation Army venue, and what terrific opportunities it provides for a larger scale production. Entering the auditorium, you are very disoriented by both the overall darkness and also the luminescent blue from the back screens; they create a slightly disturbing and unnerving 3-D effect. Actors in the dark are prowling around, lounging, languishing; you don’t know who any of them are or why they’re here. You can tell from looking at the evidence boards at the back that you’re in the police station. You think at some point that you’ll probably get to scrutinise and understand these boards, to get a better picture of what Billy Milligan did. You don’t. But that is one of the fascinations of this production, the huge effort into detail that has obviously taken place, literally in the background, but that you don’t get to examine. A lot of love has gone into this production.

Ben HamptonFocus on Billy Milligan – he’s clearly suffering mental agony. He’s no recollection of doing anything that he’s accused of – but the CCTV shows him, fair and square, assaulting various women in accordance with the accusations against him. He must be lying – or so the detective in charge believes. We see the detective interviewing Billy – but wait – it’s now a different actor playing Billy; Ben Hampton, who had played him in the first scene – and whose photo adorns the crime board on the back wall – is now playing the detective… Was there a last-minute re-casting? What’s going on?

Victoria RowlandsWhat’s going on is a brilliantly inventive way of showing Billy’s MPD with a variety of actors portraying the characters behind the different voices in Billy’s head. One hears of people saying they heard “voices”; what I’d never thought about (and if this is my lack of imagination, please excuse me) is that these different voices are like different people; a six-year-old Liverpudlian girl, an assertive American guy, a sassy aggressive know-it-all chick, a sullen sulk. Men, women, girls, boys, all races, all ages, they’re all in Billy Milligan, and this superb piece of drama brings that multitude to life with humour, passion, tension and shock. Billy Milligan really existed, incidentally, although this play doesn’t represent him in any kind of factual or documentary way – our Billy was born decades later, is considerably younger, isn’t in America but in the Salvation Army hall in Northampton. This production stamps its own individualism on the story.

Liam FaikIt’s a show of so many highlights: Billy’s victims, unable to come to terms with talking about what has happened to them; Ben Hampton silently reciting the words of all the other Billies as they take control of him; Liam Faik’s confused and cornered Billy nearly crumbling under the detective’s questioning; all the brilliant characterisations of the sub-Billies but perhaps most strikingly Victoria Rowlands’ young Elizabeth, and the hard-nosed bitch of a doctor who won’t believe that MPD exists; the meticulous mime scenes, Becky Fowlerwhich culminate in the other Billies each passing over one item of clothing to the real Billy, representing how he eventually acquires the other characters as part of himself; and the scene which made me cry, where Billy recounts to the doctor how his childhood was affected by his father – again brilliant use of video in the background that suggests just enough of what happened without having to spell it out.

Rachel Graham-BrownFantastic ensemble work, superb characterisations by all the cast; it was shocking, surprising, enlightening; it drew out humour from the most unlikely places; I absolutely loved it. This show should certainly have a life after Flash. Congratulations to you all!

Review – A Sinner Kissed an Angel, Merge Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

Merge Theatre CompanyIt’s that time again when the 3rd Year students of Acting at Northampton University launch their Flash Festival. It’s like a mini-Edinburgh fringe, and each of the productions counts as the dissertation towards the students’ degrees. Last year I saw some Flash Festival plays and I was very impressed. This year I’m hoping to see all fifteen on offer: four on Monday, four on Tuesday, three on Wednesday, two on Thursday and two on Friday. I’m already behind with my blogging, so it might be a while before I write about them all – but bear with me! There are three venues for these plays – St Peter’s Church (evocative and they’ve built the stage platform higher so previous poor sightlines are now much improved), Hazelrigg House (many different sized rooms there offering a variety of acting spaces) and the Salvation Army centre on Tower Street.

Sinner Kissed an AngelTo open my Flash Festival experience this year, I started with A Sinner Kissed an Angel performed by the Merge Theatre Company. This is the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, for the murder of her lover, David Blakely, in July 1955. She was 28. I remember hearing from my mother, the Late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, how the atmosphere on that day was very sombre. Everyone was quiet and reflective, and there were many who thought this was an inappropriate death sentence; and to this day, Ruth Ellis is a figure of some intrigue and curiosity.

The play starts with the climax, in a sense – the scene just before she murders Blakely; and then goes back to her early life, tracing the relationships, the friendships and her descent into a lawless and immoral environment where murder would seem like a fair option, given the circumstances. Regularly interrupting the progressing story of Ruth’s life, we have three “Good Housekeeping”/”Dear Marje” type ladies, with their infomercial/magazine columns advising women on how to do the best for their men, and how to cope with darker and darker situations. These scenes make for an entertaining juxtaposition with the general sadness of Ruth’s life.

A SinnerOlivia Sarah Jayne Noyce takes to the role of Ruth like a duck to water, looking every inch the part and strongly conveying the character’s wilfully coquettish nature. Ruth knows what she wants and she’s going to get it. Miss Noyce is great at showing Ruth’s obstinate, manipulative and demanding characteristics, whilst all the time looking like butter wouldn’t melt. A very good performance. I also really enjoyed watching Jennifer Etherington as her friend Vicki; she has a very authoritative vocal delivery which made me absolutely believe her character, and her diction was also very clear which is an attribute I always value.

Cast of A Sinner Kissed an AngelConnor McCreedy’s Blakely had a very sinister, threatening style; wheedling his way into Ruth’s affections, infuriatingly self-mocking, and, quite frankly, thoroughly deserving to get murdered. He was also the source of some excellent on-stage fisticuffs – very nicely handled. Jenny Watson was a very likeable and believable Muriel, amusingly stomping through the dance to grab her sister and expressing genuine concern for her safety and wellbeing; and admirably tackling the tougher prospect of playing another of Ruth’s paramours, Desmond. All four actors also shared the roles of the “Good Housekeeping” ladies – and their change of tone and style for those scenes was very crisp and funny – even if at times you had to swallow your laugh because the material was so brutal.

Overall, a very good production that told its story clearly and intelligently, performed with precision and wit. Congratulations all!

Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.