Review – Club Wonderland, University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2018

Club WonderlandI think it’s widely accepted that many children are horrid little so-and-so’s aren’t they? Why else would generations of them have been entranced, scared, perplexed and amused by Lewis Carroll’s eternally popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass? Most of those characters are right shockers. The Queen of Hearts with a beheading fetish. The Duchess who wants to hit children. The belligerent twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And Alice herself; a pompous, self-righteous little prig who talks down to others. What on earth is the appeal?

James GraysonIt must be due to the writing. Lewis Carroll is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his dual personality of the engaging writer of children’s fantasy and as Charles Dodgson, the Reverend intellectual of Christ Church Oxford. He was a pioneer of photography, and there is much debate to this day whether his interest in taking photographs of naked young girls was merely a matter of the time – when such photos were considered the epitome of innocence – or if there was a more devious intent lurking underneath. It’s very hard to come to a conclusion from our 21st century perspective.

Jemma BentleyErica Martin has written and directed this fascinating piece for the University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students. We were met by a white rabbit and taken in a group into the recesses of the theatre – a veritable warren indeed – to enter the world of Club Wonderland. The music is by Josh Bird and is fresh and tuneful and fully deserves a life after this show. With our sophisticated hostess in the shape of Dodo, assisted by more white rabbits than you could shake a stick at, we enjoyed a cabaret show, interrupted by the ominous and troubled presence of The Boss himself, Mr Carroll, who has lost his pen and therefore cannot develop his characters any further; which is why they are all trapped in the club.

Joe ConroyAll we can do is visit individual vignettes, where we become more acquainted with some of the characters who dwell in the books. We saw the creation of the Jabberwocky. We played Blackjack with the March Hare. We gave roses to the Queen of Hearts in her boudoir. We had card tricks and got drunk with Bill. And we took sides in the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (We were Team Dum). Moving around the hidden back passages of the R&D and discovering little side rooms is a fascinating exercise in intrigue in itself; we had a similar experience a few years ago with their Midsummer Bacchanalia. It really does add an extra dramatic frisson as you wonder where you’ll end up next.

Dean AdamsThis was a superb ensemble work, with everyone absolutely giving their all to make it work. The only people not to be involved in the ensemble aspect – and I felt rather sorry for then as a result – were the excellent James Grayson as Lewis Carroll, and Kalyn Chesney as Alice. I’ve seen Mr Grayson a few times now and he has the amazing ability to create magic out of any role. As Carroll he was menacing and ominous, yet also aloof and vulnerable as he gave us some insight into Carroll’s Modus Operandi. Ms Chesney’s Alice was clearly very fond of her mentor, which made for a slightly creepy but very effective partnership. Also on duty in the club you could find Freya Mawhinney as a very vivacious and stylish Dodo and Jemma Bentley as both a terrified and terrifying Mouse, both of whom helped play the very enjoyable card game with no rules with us.

Bobbie-Lee ScottIn the vignette scenes there was a brilliant performance from Bobbie-Lee Scott as the Queen of Hearts’ tart, anxious to please, scared of upsetting Her Majesty, and superbly interacting with the guests. Joe Conroy was also unnervingly excellent as the Mad March Hare, carrying on multi-layered conversations with himself whilst still hosting a blackjack tournament (must just say one thing, WHAT A CHEAT) and Dean Adams gave a great performance as Bill behind the bar, with a really effective magic trick and a sorrowful tale which required much alcoholic lubrication. Charlie-Dawn Sadler and Rhianne Brown were superb unwilling adversaries as the Tweedle-twins, in a lively scene that used The Walrus and the Carpenter to great effect. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite so excited by Daniel Peace’s scene as the fortune teller. Whether this was because it was the first of the vignettes that we saw, so we were less confident as an audience group of the format, or because the content wasn’t so interesting, I don’t know, because he created a very intriguing character; and certainly knows how to pierce you with a steely gaze, that’s for sure.

Very atmospheric, thought-provoking, and extremely well performed. Congratulations to all!

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

The CrucibleFor the second production of our day seeing all three of the Acting Students’ final plays in London, they gave us their performance of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible. This piece is one of the defining moments in the history of 20th century drama. Perceptive, shrewd, and enormously powerful, it took the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and presented them to its 1950s audience as a reflection of the Macarthyism that was decimating American society at the time. In these current days where, once again, society is being tested on both sides of the pond, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to revive it.

Ceara Coveney as Elizabeth ProctorAs it is such a significant play, and almost uniquely amongst the best drama created in the last 100 years, I think there is a tendency to treat The Crucible with great reverence. I’ve seen it a few times now, both on stage and on TV, and it always comes across exactly the same; dark, portentous, gloomy, – a true recreation of the 1690s in all its desolate desperation. There’s a huge temptation to concentrate on the supernatural spookiness of witchcraft as a force for evil and the triumph of darkness over light; to be honest, I’m not sure if it is possible to do it any other way. Certainly, Nadia Papachronopoulou’s production is as traditional as ever.

Alexander Forrester-ColesSadly it also felt very static; which is no way to describe the escalation of events that happen during the four acts of this play. We go from childish pranks and secret relationships, through the questioning, distrust and imprisonment of various innocent bystanders, to individual acts of heroism and unjustified instances of capital punishment; that hardly sounds like a static play. But I got very little sense of plot progression and I must confess at times I found it very hard to stay focussed. Farrah DarkTrue, it wasn’t helped by the noisy chattering and giggling of a group of students in the audience. It may well have been their first experience of live theatre; no better time then, to learn how to behave when you’re out. But I just felt that the production was a little risk-averse and very predictable; it might have benefited from some big, bold, unexpected statement that never quite happened.

Oliver FranksNevertheless, there were some good performances; I very much enjoyed Farrah Dark’s portrayal of Abigail Williams, a defiant woman although still little more than a child herself, concealing past indiscretions by employing the old tactic that attack as the best form of defence. Oliver Franks also gave a strong performance as the grim Reverend Parris, a man driven by self-interest, way in excess of any Christian love. The main role of John Proctor was given a determined and powerful performance by Alexander Forrester-Coles, bringing out both the character’s nobility and fallibility. His wife, Elizabeth, was played with immaculate sensitivity by Ceara Coveney; Naomi EllD B Gallagher gave a truly menacing performance as the wicked Judge Danforth; and there was a nicely understated performance by Naomi Ell as Ezekiel Cheever, the diligent but essentially kindly court clerk. Surprisingly, a few cast members seemed a little imprisoned by their roles rather than liberated by them – which was unfortunate because I know they’re great actors from their previous performances! There were also a few instances where some lines were garbled and just weren’t delivered in the assured manner that I would have expected.

Not an outright triumph, but nevertheless enjoyable, and it told its story clearly and with some memorable scenes.

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 – Persecuted, United-Force Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Flash Festival11th May 2005. The Iraq War at its bloodiest. Tony Blair’s move to topple Saddam Hussein had been initially successful, but the fallout was now telling. In a camp in Basra, British troop commander James Farrell and his Lieutenant, Dan, find themselves with the vital task of interrogating Mohammed bin Osama bin Laden, the son of the Al-Qaeda leader, to ascertain the details of an imminent attack.

Persecuted twoThere’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying goes. James favours a Softly, Softly approach, luring the terrorist into a false sense of security, dropping the emotional hot brick of an update on his wife and kids, teasing out the truth as a psychological victory. Dan, on the other hand, favours the threat of violence and punishment, and thinks torture is the only sure way to get what they want. But Dan has his own reasons for revenge; he attributes the death of his father to the terrorists, so this time it’s personal. Together they adopt a kind of nice cop, nasty cop tactic, crossing between each other to unsettle the suspect. But it’s not working, and the terrorist knows he’s winning. When he sees his two interrogators at each other’s throats with despair at their lack of progress, his mind is made up to stay silent. Shoot me and make me a martyr is his goading wish.

PersecutedThis is a very powerful play, with great characterisations and performances from actors whose work I’ve already admired, in The Accused, and The Night Before Christmas. Alexander Forrester-Coles is excellent as James, clearly an officer by birthright, with an innate nobility and natural authority. You can almost see his brain whirring away as he works out the best way to outwit the terrorist, and there’s no mistaking his clipped irritation when things don’t go his way. Chris Tyler is also superb as Dan, with his redoubtable physical presence being put to great use as he dominates the wretched terrorist and tries to dominate his senior officer – who’s having none of it. Radostin Radev makes up the cast as the silently mocking Bin Laden Jnr, sticking to his story of being an honest farmer, singing verses from the Koran, alternating perfectly between innocence and insolence; and being on the receiving end of the most vicious stage combat when Dan can hold back no more.

Radostin Radev and Chris TylerI say stage combat; there’s a fine line to be drawn between performing this vital and difficult skill perfectly, and getting it wrong. Nothing looks more risible than a stage fight where it’s so obvious that no one’s touching anyone; they may as well be doing ballet. On the other hand, there’s the kind of stage combat where the hits are clearly landing, and landing hard. In the course of the torture, Mr Radev is, inter alia, smashed over the head with a tin tray that buckles with the force and has his head plunged several times into a bucket of water. Not so much stage combat as…, well, combat. Whilst it was incredibly effective to look at, and really brought the tension to a head, I couldn’t help but wondering where acting ended, and assault began. I asked Mr Radev afterwards how much he hurt, and he replied quite a bit! I’m not sure how well received the idea of that kind of physical pain would go down if the cast members weren’t mates too. Just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind – unlike the nagging ache at the top of Mr Radev’s head.

The brutality of the events on stage were echoed by the brutality of some of the images on the accompanying video clips; I know that Iraq is hardly playing doctors and nurses but maybe the selection of some of the video was a little more forceful than it needed to be – at least without some prior warning. If they were trying to shock us, it worked.

A production that maybe lacked just a tiny bit of finesse, but with absolutely no questioning the commitment of the cast or the dramatic intensity of the piece, which was riveting throughout. Great work!

Review – An Error in the Medley, Carousel Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 26th April 2018

Flash FestivalThere’s a scene in Tom Kempinski’s play Duet For One, loosely based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and which I remember reduced me to tears when I saw it back in 1980, when the musician Stephanie, who can no longer play the violin because of her disability, bawls her heart out to her psychotherapist. “Music is the purest expression of humanity there is”, she affirms, and I was strongly reminded of that theory when watching Carousel Theatre Company’s An Error in the Medley, a one-woman play performed by Amelia Renard.

An Error in the MedleyWe find ourselves in an exclusive salon, having an audience with a young musical phenomenon, Leonie Owens. Miss Owens is a composer extraordinaire, with (one presumes) a catalogue of great achievements for her young years, and fanning a desire to soothe the fevered brow of the general populace with her amazing skill. Will she play for us? No, rather like Princess Anne said many years ago, she doesn’t do tricks. Maybe she would be so kind as to just pick out a few notes to give an example of how music can soar and bring light to others? (Hence my memory of Duet for One, mentioned above). Just a few then; and she falters at the keyboard. She graciously allows a short Q&A to follow, but is quickly thrown by the preponderance of questions about her parents. Why are they concentrating on them, rather than her? It’s just not fair!

The big question that the promotional text poses is just how far can a dream take you? Leonie’s desire to become a great composer has blinded her to the fact that she can’t actually play. It’s all a fantasy, which falls apart when subjected to the simplest questions. When exposed as a sham, she can only see one noble way out of the mess she’s created for herself.

Amelia RenardMs Renard has devised a fascinating character; pompous, faux-refined, patronising, and with an ugly superiority complex. When the mask slips, she’s just an ordinary young woman with dreams way beyond her ability. It’s a very good performance; I loved the arrogant tone with which she gave voice to Leonie’s pontificating. It was only a shame that there wasn’t something a little more substantial to the play. It wasn’t enough just to see Leonie being Leonie; we needed to observe her actively do something. It starts with a long pause, whilst she’s getting her CDs in order; and there’s another long pause in the middle, between the showdown with the audience’s questions and the confession that it’s all a lie – and these pauses, with her back to the audience so we couldn’t see her facial expressions, unfortunately served to reduce the drama rather than heighten it. The end result was like a tiny two-act play in miniature; fragile, delicate, and like Lady Macbeth’s candle, out too briefly.

There’s the basis of a really good play here, but I think it just needed a little more work and exploration to capture our attention fully.

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.