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.

Review – Posh, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

PoshFrom Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?

Ben BartonDespite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. Benjamin SullivanI attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.

Chris DrewActually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. Connor McCreedyAnd will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.

Daniel Ambrose-JonesNevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s Javiar Melhadocharacter, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with Jay Andrewssuperb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; Jennifer Wyndhamthere’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.

Lauren ScottConnor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Lee HancockBen Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.

Matt KitsonThere are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little Olly Manningdifferent from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. Steven CroydonAnd Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. Tom Garland There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.

Review – Pornography, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th March 2017

PornographyIt’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.

Becky FowlerOn Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.

Hans OldhamHow 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. Jack JamesThe impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.

Jamal FranklinPornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.

Jenny WatsonThis is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.

Jessica BichardWhen the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.

Joseph T CallaghanIn the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.

Karr KennedyAfter the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.

Liam FaikIn perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.

Luke MortimoreThe final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.

Olivia Sarah Jayne NoyceOverall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Samuel LittlewoodP. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.

Review – She Echoes, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 7th December 2016

she-echoesLast month I accompanied Mr Smallmind to see Shrapnel, the first of two improvised pieces by the University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at their little den of iniquity, Dark Isham, on the university campus. Now it’s time for the second show, She Echoes, again created by the students and directed by Lily McLeish. Just to set the scene, let me verbatim the director’s note for you: “Imagine for every choice you make an alternate possibility that didn’t happen splits off. Imagine being able to see all the possible outcomes of your life. Imagine the tiniest change of one day could have the most unforeseen outcome.” We’re clearly in that rather exciting world of Sliding Doors and J B Priestley memory plays, where you reach a Dangerous Corner and turn one way rather than the other; and who knows what would have happened if you’d taken the other turning. Well, in She Echoes, there’s no doubt. All the possibilities are played out very clearly, and with substantially different results.

Karr KennedyThe bare bones are these – Emily wakes up (she might oversleep, she might not); she sees her sister Claire on her way to work (Claire might be drunk, she might not); she might take the car to work (or she might walk); she gets to work (she might be late, she might not); she has either a terrible or a great day; she meets a guy who asks her out (he might be shy, he might not); she gets her hair done and arranges to go to the Red Ruby for dancing at 9 (she might be alone, she might not); she has a great night (or she has an appalling night). All the possibilities are woven very cleverly into the narrative and, with many cast members constantly changing roles you might sometimes be a little unsure of who is doing what with whom, but that just adds to the general mystery and depth of the whole piece. It’s always entertaining and always taking surprising turns, and at 70 minutes non-stop it’s a burst of energy on the stage.

Benjamin HamptonThey use two methods of showing the alternative paths that a sequence of events could take. Usually they employ the straightforward method of acting out a scene from start to finish, and then acting it out again but this time with some changes. However, the most thrilling scene in the play is in the nightclub where instead of having one sequence of events follow the other, you have one story being acted out on one side of the stage and another story being acted on the other at the same time. This visual side-by-side-ness provides a stark contrast between the two experiences and has a really high impact. The music, the costumes and some of the props suggest that the play is set in the 1920s; for example, the market crates have London 1924 stamped on them, and in one scene they discuss Prohibition in the States, and there is one excellent dance number with the whole cast which certainly has elements of Charleston (although primarily was just good fun). Apart from that, nothing else seems to relate to that era, and the conversation styles are certainly those of the modern day, so I’m not entirely sure why they chose to set it at that time. I note that Emily spends 2/- on her daily paper… how much?!! I don’t think any newspaper would have been more than a penny in those days – Moneysorter suggests an equivalent cost today would be £4.25.

Rachel Graham-BrownI don’t want to be nit-picky though. The play is structured so that each member of the cast gets their opportunity to shine and for the most part they darn well seize those chances and give us some excellent moments of theatre. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the entire performance, though, is how seamlessly each cast member integrates with everyone else; this is one of the most effective ensemble performances I’ve seen in a long time. Without a detailed programme (which, admittedly, with this play could be quite some feat to engineer) I might get a few names wrong for which I apologise in advance. I really loved the partnership between Benjamin Hampton as Pete and Karr Kennedy as Emily, when he’s so tentatively trying to touch her hand but can’t quite make it happen and she’s so desperate for him to touch her hand but can’t possibly be seen to encourage him. Anyone who’s been on an early date when you really think there might be something great in the offing but you don’t want to do the wrong thing in case you ruin it will really recognise that moment. Mr Hampton absolutely exuded that sense of reserved refinement in his characterisation throughout the show and it was a joy to watch. I also really enjoyed Ms Kennedy’s demure Emily, and her other character, that of the bubbly friend she meets in the street, who gives her the “360” look at her new hairdo – a really convincing portrayal, although not remotely 1924!

Liam FaikI also admired the style and elegance of Rachel Graham-Brown; she performs with great dignity and presence throughout and I also really liked her in the big dance number! But if there was (for me) one stand-out performance it is Liam Faik, because he most effectively conveys the wide range of all his different characterisations; as a vain wide-boy, an effeminate manicurist, but best of all as the violent drunk Pete who demands more from Emily than she wants to give and ends up fighting in the Red Ruby. His was the most believable stage fight I’ve seen in ages; some of those punches seemed to land so realistically! I guess they didn’t in reality, or else his poor adversary wouldn’t have been able to carry on (and I’m sorry but I’m not sure who played the part of his fight-enemy, but they also gave a great performance.) Mr Faik is definitely One To Watch.

A most enjoyable production, and one that (and I mean this nicely) values brevity as a source of wit as those 70 minutes are filled with excellence, but maybe if it had gone on much longer its impact would have started to weaken – so, structurally, it was superbly well judged. Great performances, many inspired examples of characterisation, and an excellent use of the stage with the big musical number. A moving play too; Mr Smallmind confessed that a speck of dust must have got into his eye at one point. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Review – Shrapnel, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 2nd November 2016

ShrapnelI blame Mr Smallmind. I was perfectly happy seeing all those wonderful professional productions at the R&D and the plethora of other theatres within easy reach of Northampton. Then he said I should broaden my vision and catch some of the University of Northampton Acting students’ shows. Start gently with the March shows in the Royal. Get in deeper with the Flash Festival productions. Now I’ve turned really hardcore, as I accompanied the aforesaid bad influence on my first visit to Isham Dark (isn’t that one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets? Darn well should be) and Shrapnel, a play devised by the students through their own experiences, observations and research of life on the streets in Northampton.

Lewis HodsonThe programme notes describe it as an unapologetically sprawling vision of contemporary street life. That’s a really good description. The acting space at Isham Dark lends itself perfectly to this purpose, as we the audience look across the stage in transverse at other audience members looking back at us – as though they are our mirror reflection as we observe what’s going on in front of us. And, separating us, where the action is, the 19-strong cast suggest an overall landscape of hundreds of people coming and going about their daily business; and specifically, about 30 or so people whose lives intertwine over the course of approximately 36 hours.

Jessica BridgeStructurally – yes, it’s sprawling. At 2 hours without an interval I could have done with a pause halfway through, because it’s an intense show with lots to look at and my legs could have done with a stretch. What begins as a very diverse experience, with many seemingly unrelated characters just living their day to day existence, grows in force as you realise the hidden relationships beneath the surface. For example, you discover that person a) is person b)’s brother and person c) is in a difficult relationship with person d) and person e) is, in fact, a dog.

Connor McReedyYou could almost break the play down into individual playlets, some of which are very strong in their own right – either because of the acting, or the text, or just the impression they are trying to achieve. I loved the conversation between Jack and the girl who isn’t his girlfriend (Emmy? Can’t quite remember – very hard when the names aren’t in the programme!) but whom he’s trying to impress, when he’s concealing the fact that his super new job is a chugger. It’s very funny, quite touching, and indeed, I felt his embarrassment! I loved the night-time scene when all the homeless people get together and create a virtual living room out of just a rug and a welcome mat; that scene showed me something completely new about homelessness that I’ve never considered before – very challenging stuff. And I loved the scene where the two rival chugging teams have a stand-off, each trying to out-threaten the other, apart from the two newbies, who naturally want to have a good intercollegial friendship; very funny, and I can absolutely believe the truthfulness of that situation. I loved, although that’s not the right word, the scene where a guy, who is generally neither brutal nor heartless, gets caught up in chav/machismo pack mentality and starts tormenting a homeless woman with money if she’ll lick his shoe. And I loved the challenge you face when you’re giving a homeless person some money and then you catch them using their mobile phone – they can’t really be poor, can they? All these scenes are either heartwarming, horrifying or hilarious and work exceptionally well. And I loved the way everyone recreates the sound of raindrops.

Hans OldhamWe saw the first performance, so perhaps we should look on it as a preview? There were just a couple of loose moments, although perhaps not as many as one might fear or expect; it would be great if they had a plan for when the play definitely reaches its conclusion (!) and I recommend guys that you work on a smart curtain call; it makes all the difference as to how the audience feels about the entire show and its performers because it’s the only time we get to see you as you and not as your characters.

Olly ManningHaving seen last year’s third year students perform in a few plays now, it’s absolutely fascinating to get this early glimpse into some (hopefully!) successful acting careers of the future. Of all the cast, I think only one person didn’t really convince me of their belief in their own character, which led to them giving an uneven and rather faltering performance. However, for everyone else, I totally believed in their characters, and many of them made me laugh and, perhaps more importantly in this play, made me cry. Well, very nearly.

Florence Rees-WaiteFor me a few performances really stand out as being first rate. Jessica Bridge is excellent as Harriet, a chugger with attitude – but not so much that she couldn’t be a rounded person too. She has brilliant clarity of diction and I heard and understood every word (a quality never to be underestimated!) She has (don’t take this the wrong way) a bad girl quality that is both attractive and edgy; quite a hard coating that conceals a softer centre. That really helps us to understand the sometimes contrasting and unexpected motivations of her character. I also really enjoyed the performance of Lewis Hodson as Ben, the homeless guy whose trust in mankind has completely gone, which results in his sometimes letting rip in anger against whoever he thinks has slighted him. If he’s actually based on a real life character in Northampton, I think I know the guy in question. Totally believable, with authoritative delivery and an excellent stage presence. One To Watch.

Kundai KanyamaI was very impressed with Florence Rees-Waite as the pavement artist, holding her own, beautifully, against Lee Hancock’s formidable ranting insidious git character; exuding warmth and kindness in her interaction with the other people facing hard times. She has a very expressive face – it tells great stories without having to use words. When she does speak, she has wonderful control over the pace of her speech, which gives us huge confidence in her – you tend to hang on to her every word. Hans Oldham also showed great conviction as the Jesus Man, part preacher, part mental sufferer, part street alcoholic; he paints a very sad picture of this man but again with great humanity, and you feel with genuine affection. Connor McCreedy is a charmingly naïve Jack; April Lissimore gives a very enjoyable performance as the underachieving Carly with deeper problems than we’ll ever know; I liked how Olly Manning spins from being Mr Nice Guy to Mr Vile in that very telling scene of torment; and Kundai Kanyama as Martha successfully conveys the juxtaposing motivations of being a team leader; an element of coaching and nurturing mixed with an element of JFDI. And, it turns out, with a heart of gold.

The entire cast put huge effort into creating an excellent ensemble feel, each giving each other great support on stage, and giving the audience a rewarding and fascinating insight into what a typical street sees every day. I look forward to seeing them do more throughout the year!

Review – The End, Phone Box Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 19th May 2016

The EndNot inappropriately, The End was the last of the Flash Festival plays I saw this year. Not only the end of my Flash experience – which had been thoroughly enjoyable – but also the end (probably) of everyone’s experience unless we all followed our instructions and made it to the safe zone. Confused? No need. Here’s the science bit: set in the very near future, the government released a vaccination to cure cancer; and though it was successful there was an unfortunate side effect – it killed 140,000 of the people who received it. I say killed; that’s not strictly true. The vaccine went on to cause rapid cell regeneration in the bodies, but the minds and the brains remained destroyed – yes, gentle reader, we have a zombie population half the size of Northampton.

But we, here in the church, are clean. We are healthy. We have undergone considerable scrutiny just to get inside the venue, with the gun-wielding Roach checking our bags (he made me unzip an empty compartment inside my bag, so glad he didn’t find anything suspicious) and the more gentlemanly Scruff doing a physical health check (he asked me if I had any marks on my arms, and was a little concerned at how long I took to answer, but I think I convinced him I was uninfected). Harper, the leader, is waiting for us at the end of the seats, with more questions and a frosty kind of welcome. You certainly feel unsettled, and even if you’re tempted to engage in a little giggle along the way, it doesn’t take long before Roach puts you back in your place with a gruff retort or a shove of his gun. This is not The Romper Room.

Phone Box castThe only structural problem with this play is that, if you are one of the first to take your seats, it takes a long time to get going because everyone behind you has to go through the comprehensive security check. It very much adds to a sense of occasion and/or fear; but, in the end, you are sitting around, basically waiting for something to happen – although it does give you an opportunity to share your experience with your fellow zombie survivors. Once it does all get going it’s extremely exciting and thought provoking. Harper has a perfect plan for us all to escape; transport is arranged, and the route double-checked. However, sadly, the driver upon whom we were all relying has died and so we’re left with fewer chances of getting to the safe area. And it’s a helluva long way away too. The first stage is that we have to walk to Birmingham. That’s a big ask.

We meet the fourth member of the group, Faith, whom I’m sure was only given that name so that they could use the terrific joke about losing faith (No! She’s here!) Undercurrents of resentment abound, as Roach doesn’t believe a woman can do the top job, and Scruff resents Roach’s attitude, and Harper fights to retain her superiority, and Faith is offering us biscuits. When it becomes clear that Faith has actually become infected herself, Roach is all for shooting her there and then. But Harper intercedes and we discover that Faith and Harper are more than just friends; nevertheless, Faith remains a health hazard to us all and will die anyway. We’re all expecting Roach to shoot her – but then Harper does it. As far as the overall survival of the group is concerned, it was the only safe thing to do (even though she was so very nice to everyone). The play ends with Roach dismissing us all from the church, hollering at us to leave in no uncertain language, and as we leave the church to rejoin the outside world, we reflect that there is no zombie apocalypse after all (well, not at the moment anyway) and that we’ve basically left the theatre without giving them a round of applause.

Phone BoxThe cast of four do a terrific job in keeping the tension and excitement up whilst still allowing for the injection of some humour, primarily through the delightful performance by Caroline Avis as the benign Faith who only wants to help and be supportive. I was really impressed by the no-nonsense attack and thinly disguised brutality of Daniel Gray’s Roach – Mr Gray really does do aggressive well. I was also very impressed by the performance by Connor McAvoy as Scruff; of all the cast I felt he was the one who most appreciated the situation we were all in and ran the gamut of all the appropriate emotions as our predicament worsened. It was a really intelligent performance; and he also provided a lot of the humour too. Matilda Hunt’s Harper was a naturally superior sort, every inch the queen of MI5, just about maintaining the authority she needed despite Roach’s Rottweiler tactics – another thoughtful and solid performance.

A memorable and disturbing piece. It’s hard to forget being chased out of a church by an intimidating maniac with gun telling you to f**k off, that really doesn’t happen every day. And Harper’s shooting of Faith with a deadly almost silent pistol was nerve-judderingly horrific. Now for that long walk to Birmingham – wish me luck.

Review – What If They Were Wrong, Two Funny, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 19th May 2016

What if they were wrongIt seems to me that there are a few versions of the title of this play, but we’ll stick with What If They Were Wrong. Not that the title gives you any indication what to expect anyway! Oppression is a dish best served cold says the programme – for that you have to wait until the final scene, and even then I’d say it was served piping hot, but that’s probably a matter of pure semantics.

The performing duo of Benjamin Williams and Cynthia Lebbos call themselves Two Funny and, boy, are they right. This was one of the funniest hours I’ve witnessed in many months. Using the art of clowning, they tell the story of a couple. They meet at adjacent picnics; he takes her to a restaurant; they get married; they live in domestic…bliss?; and finally, fed up with his laziness and untidiness, she sends him to the dungeon. Yes, that’s right, they appear to have a dungeon in the downstairs of their house. Enunciating only a few words but with many communicative grunts and gestures, they tell the story with remarkable clarity and a fabulous appreciation for surreal and slapstick humour. Who knew that stand-alone words like “naughty” or “reduced” could have such hilarious effect when in the right context?

Two Funny castThe audience involvement is considerable, which must be a quite a risk for the performers because they cannot know in advance how any one person is going to engage with them – and it really does require them to be fully participative! Audience members become a substantial part of the prop management department; they also become wedding guests, and even the vicar who marries the couple; one young man was required to read out a particularly lascivious extract from 50 Shades of Grey. But if either of these two actors came up to you and told you to make a fool of yourself in public – you’d just have to. They would be impossible to resist, such is the charm of their performance.

Mr Williams, in particular, gives an astonishingly physical performance, leaping up against the walls either side of the stage, doing one of the best banana-skin type pratfalls I have ever seen (particularly in such a tiny acting space), creating landscapes with his malleable facial features. At one stage I was laughing at whatever activity had just occurred, when he sat down on the couch in front of me and fixed me with his glare and just said “what?” – and it cracked me up all over again. But it’s not just clowning for clowning’s sake. Mr Williams wore one of those silly woollen hats with dog ear flaps that come down over your ears. If it came off or went askew he would scream with OCD distress until it was replaced perfectly – an excellent example of revealing a deeper character whilst still clowning. Miss Lebbos also has a brilliant physical comedy style, and I particularly liked her ability to break out of character completely and address the audience in a matter of fact way that you couldn’t quite work out if it was scripted or not. She looks all sweetness and light, so when she turns vindictive it’s a real shock to the system. And I certainly wasn’t expecting her to frog-march us all down to the dungeon.

Two FunnyYes indeed, gentle reader, we had to get up from our seats in the Hazlerigg studio and troop down two flights of stairs into the dungeon, where she had imprisoned Mr Williams for some ritual abuse. (This is where the oppression bit kicks in). Upstairs she had seemed such a nice young lady, but in the dungeon she battered him maniacally with all forms of weapons of torture. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t going to put up with that and, replacing himself with a member of the audience (who had to sit there, expecting torture, until the end of the play), went off with his chainsaw in order to track down the unfortunate Miss Lebbos backstage and arrange for her final entrance in two black refuse sacks. The piece ends with some spoken words of advice about how to handle anger management issues. A bit late for that methinks.

A thoroughly entertaining hour of loopy comedy. Nothing phased our two performers at all and they carried on the constant repartee with the audience throughout the entire show. A privilege to witness two performances of such great energy and creativity – I really loved it.