Review – Eight Pounds Sixty, TaBoo Productions, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th April 2018

Flash FestivalDepression, mental illness, suicide. We see the words every day and, fortunately, for most of us that’s as close as we get to understanding them. But as more and more people are becoming diagnosed with mental illnesses, and the consumption of drugs like citalopram are steadily on the rise, TaBoo Productions’ Eight Pounds Sixty is a timely reminder of what it can be like to suffer with depression and have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in this country; it’s thought to affect men more than women because women find it easier to talk, although other studies suggest that women are more successful (if that’s the right word) at committing suicide than men – men have more failed suicide attempts. Such statistics are gruesome.

Eight Pounds SixtyThis short play introduces us to two characters, 23-year-old Annie, doing well, with her own two-bedroomed flat in the best part of Buckinghamshire; and 17-year-old Rosie, a garrulous, excitable young lady with the world at her feet, or so you’d think. But Annie’s messy floordrobe is a symptom of her messed up mind, and as for Rosie – well we’ll come to her in a short while. Annie presents well. She’s happy at work (relatively – we all have idiot colleagues from time to time, but her recollections of their coffee orders are very amusing); she’s having counselling but she likes her counsellor, and citalopram gets her through the day – the Eight Pounds Sixty of the title, by the way, is the cost of a prescription. She bemoans the idiotic questions that she is required to answer for the well-meaning but overstretched NHS. But then there was the day she had to ring 111, and we hear the conversation between her and switchboard, and it’s clear she’s in trouble.

Naomi EllNaomi Ell gives a stunning solo performance, winning us over instantly with her quirky observations about her daily routines, the nicely impertinent asides about her colleagues, and her chatty reflections on her medical treatment. So it comes as a tremendous shock when the painful truth of Annie’s condition can no longer be hidden, and the tears begin to fall – not only from Ms Ell’s eyes but from the majority of the audience.

She deftly changes into a summer dress to become Rosie, cheekily exchanging niceties with a chap in the front row; 17 years old, but still attached to her pets. And just when you think all’s well, she opens a piece of paper simply entitled Mum and Dad, and she reads out loud what she has written. And that’s the starting point for fresh tears, a liberally opened packet of paracetamol, and the inevitable result of too much teenage pressure.

It’s an incredibly moving piece, performed as an absolute tour de force. If you’ve been affected by thoughts of suicide, either by yourself or loved ones, you may want to think twice about seeing this play because it pulls no punches. It’s so beautifully done, but with some truly hard moments. At just over 20 minutes, this must be one of the shortest plays around, but quality beats quantity and its impact surely outweighs the time spent watching it. Unforgettable.

Review – Deciding What to do with Dad, Blue Shift Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 24th April 2018

Flash FestivalDementia is an issue which always merits dramatic examination because, let’s face it, we’re all getting older, it’s getting bigger, and it’s probably going to see most of us off if we’re lucky enough to live that long. Having witnessed the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous vascular dementia over a period of nine years, and her brother before her, I know this is a very personal and very tricky problem – and there’s really no right or wrong way to deal with it apart from ensuring they get the best possible care you can offer. But parents can be very difficult, can’t they? No matter the good times you shared, how they looked after you, how they even risked their lives for you, they can become a nuisance at times. Danny DeVito’s bright idea was to Throw Momma From The Train, but Mommas have a habit of bouncing back.

Deciding What to do with DadBlue Shift Theatre’s Deciding What to do with Dad considers the plight of three brothers whose father has succumbed to dementia. But if you’re expecting a po-faced, searing exploration of the nature of dementia, or even worse, looking for advice as to how to help look after a parent with dementia, you’ve come to the wrong place. This brilliant, subversive, fast-paced surreal comedy breaks all the rules with its proposed solution to the brothers’ problem, whilst still twinging at the heartstrings in its emotional moments; I confess, when the brothers were reading aloud their father’s wishes that he had written when he was still compos mentis, I experienced that strange wetness in the eye that can sometimes take you by surprise.

Jac BurbidgeThe three brothers are beautifully characterised. Charlie, the youngest and most sensible, takes a practical approach; Ryan, the returning prodigal, takes a traditional approach; Archie, the weird one, takes a weird approach. The structure of the show enables the cast to break the fourth wall on an almost continuous basis, which gives it both flexibility and a dangerous edge; it creates a delicious bond with the audience, so we know we’re not only watching three awkwardly matched brothers taking the rise out of each other (as brothers do), but also three likeable young actors creating some theatrical magic apparently on the hoof (although I’m sure it’s very well prepared).

Jake StathamIt would be invidious to pick out the individual performance of any one of Jac Burbidge, Jake Statham or Hal Gallagher because they gelled together so well to create a really convincing ensemble. But I did like Mr Burbidge’s song, which starts with quirky humour but ends with true pathos; Mr Statham’s energy and enthusiasm in the flashbacks, whilst keeping one foot in the door of reality; and Mr Gallagher’s dour, self-pitying daft sod of a clown – I really loved his phone call with an 8 year old client.

Hal GallagherIt reminded me a little of Peter Nichols’ Day in the Death of Joe Egg, where the parents of a severely disabled child manage to survive everyday life by turning their whole existence into pastiche and pantomime. Creating subversive, ridiculous humour as a way of coming to terms with dementia strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Having seen a few Flash Festival plays over the last three years I’m definitely of the opinion that it’s much harder successfully to carry off comedy in this format than it is tragedy; but these guys made it look easy. I loved this production – I’m only sorry I won’t have time to see it again. Congratulations guys, you did an amazing job. You could take this play, give it a little tightening here and there, add a couple more ideas plus say ten more minutes, and it would be a smash at Edinburgh.

Review – Lay Me Bare, Athena Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd April 2018

Flash FestivalAthena Theatre’s Flash Festival play, Lay Me Bare, is a three-hander that tells the stories of three different women and their experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of three unseen but violent partners. At the beginning of the play they all nurse black eyes as they stare sadly into their mirrors, trying to come to terms with the violence that has been inflicted on them. Applying makeup might make the visual evidence temporarily go away, but there’s no hiding the damage done beneath. Monica is a student, totally under the spell of TJ, in and out of prison; how will he react when he finds out she’s pregnant? Fola is a devout Christian, whose only wish is to be able to conceive a child with her husband; how will he react when he finds out she’s not pregnant? Elsie is a hairdresser, struggling to pay the bills, working hard while her Phil stays out late getting drunk, turning violent when she complains at him over his reckless behaviour. “It won’t happen again” avows his disembodied voice; does he keep his promise?

Lay Me BareHere we have three strong characterisations of the three abused women; three similar problems, but with three very different outcomes. I really enjoyed Xara Chisano’s portrayal of Monica, a very quiet, reserved, self-punishing character who has endless excuses for her boyfriend’s terrible behaviour. It’s as though he has taken away her ability to express herself and have her own identity, and you really feel the struggle as Ms Chisano tries to reassert herself and finally pluck up courage to tell TJ about the pregnancy. I have to confess I did sense a little bit of water in the eye as she portrayed his vicious reaction. Very strong stuff – but with Monica there is a small sense of hope in the final scene, which gives the play a (relatively) bright and optimistic ending.

Xara ChisanoMaddy Ogedengbe gives an emotionally charged performance as Fola; you can really feel her pain by looking at her anguished face. When she meets the doctor who confirms the blood test results, her fear and alarm is palpable. Perhaps it was a little strange that the doctor doesn’t seem to be that sensitive to her position; on the other hand, perhaps it’s no surprise, given how overworked our medical staff are. Her cries of torment are really harrowing. It was another really strong performance.

Maddy OgedengbeFarrah Dark is a spiky, hard-working Elsie who gives as good as she gets when arguing with her wretched drunken partner. I didn’t feel as though the role was quite as full or emotionally written as the other two, but her anguish was strongly portrayed and her representation of being the victim of a physical attack was very vivid and tough to watch. I also really liked Ms Dark as Monica’s friend Stacey, an ebullient and funny characterisation that lightened the otherwise tense and oppressive mood.

Farrah DarkAll three women suffer at the hands of truly objectionable and vicious men: a drunkard, a recidivist, and maybe a religious zealot? We don’t know that much about the men, and the play allows us to fill those gaps ourselves, which appeals to my sense of making the audience work a little to get the most out of the play.

There was one rather unusual aspect to how this play is presented to the audience, and that’s the manner of conducting telephone conversations. On a couple of occasions, the victim and the abuser are on a phone call together and what we the audience hear is both sides of the conversation talking, pre-recorded. Would it not have felt more natural for the victim character to speak live on stage with either pre-recorded responses or indeed, the responses being delivered live, but from off-stage? With the actor just passively listening to both sides of the conversation, stylistically it just looked and felt a bit odd.

Anyway, this is just nit-picking. The play gives us three very strong stories, eloquently told, and powerfully conveyed. Congratulations to all on a memorable production!

Review – Screw You, Sonder Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd April 2018

Flash FestivalIt only seems a few months ago that I enjoyed (and I really did!) the 2017 Flash Festival but, here it is again, all bright and shiny and ready to entertain for another year. There are twelve shows on offer for 2018, and, with any luck, Mr Smallmind and I will get to see all of them. I’m expecting keyboard arthritis by the end of the week.

Screw YouFirst up was Screw You, performed by the Sonder Ensemble in an intimate little studio upstairs at Hazelrigg House. Inspired by last year’s upsetting reports of epidemic sexual harassment in the entertainment industry that centred on the Harvey Weinstein revelations, Ceara Coveney, Gemma Leigh and Katie Lawson have assembled a fascinating, emotional and disturbing piece that takes verbatim accounts from some of the victims and weaves together an exposé of institutionalised harassment.

Ceara CoveneyIt’s largely a collection of accounts by women and men approached by sexual predators who can get them just the right job opportunity if they play along with their sordid game. For a time last year we were all reading these accounts in the papers and online every day, and after a while the regularity and frequency of these appalling stories lessened their impact and unfortunately made the subject almost mundane. But the shock of hearing these accounts is far greater when someone is standing in front of you and relating these intimidating and terrifying ordeals in person.

Gemma LeighThe three actors have created a superb ensemble piece bringing these stories to life through a range of characters. You see how some people cope with these experiences through humour; others are simply so broken by the devastation of what’s happened to them that they can barely string a sentence together. The effect of watching and hearing these accounts at close hand is very powerful.

Katie LawsonTechnically it was a great performance; all three actors have superbly clear enunciation, so it was a joy to listen to, and I also admired how they created a physically intriguing show from what could otherwise be quite static material. Whilst one person is telling their story the other two might be acting out public reactions, or performing some intimate mime, giving an indication of the physical harassment involved. With the help of some newspaper cuttings on the backdrop, and using only three stools, they gave depth to their shallow stage area and formed creative spatial relationships, which really helped to convey the material to the audience. All three also showed off an excellent command of accents, with some very effective North American and Antipodean voices in there.

At just 25 minutes long it fully endorses the old phrase that brevity is the soul of wit. Punchy, painful and poignant, this drove home the horrors of sexual harassment in both the entertainment industry and also out there in real life. A clear and angry voice in support of the #metoo victims. Great work!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice, Graduates 2018 Showcase Programme, 14th February 2018

2018 ShowcaseI was delighted to receive an invitation to the Dress Rehearsal for this year’s London Showcase for the 2018 Graduates of the University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice course. Last year, when I saw the London Showcase, I had already seen the actors in a number of different roles from their appearances at the Royal and at the Flash Festival. This really helped assess the versatility of the performers, and I was surprised at the range some of them achieved. Because of a change in structure of the courses, I’ve only seen these 2018 Graduates in one previous production, Balm in Gilead. So this was just my second opportunity to see them show off their talents, hopefully to attract the attention of agents and managers and to give their careers a jolly good kickstart.

Joe ConroyMy friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind braved the icy cold to trek up to the Maidwell Hall to watch the cast of fourteen assemble a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, either short sketches or extracts from longer works. Some were extremely serious, giving the cast the opportunity to plumb the depths of aggression or bereavement, to create passionate and hard-hitting drama; others were light-hearted and funny, which brings a totally different strength and skillset to the Showcase. It’s human nature to identify with, and moreover like, someone on stage who makes you laugh; so when you’re trying to win the attention of professionals, whom you want to have on your side in the future, personally I think a good dollop of endearing humour can go a long way.

James GraysonThere were some stand-out sketches and performances for me that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought were superbly acted. The best of the more serious fare was a scene featuring James Grayson and Joe Conroy as two antagonistic attendees at a funeral, with Bobbie-Lee Scott caught between them as a grieving mother. All three gave powerful performances, spitting out the venom of their speeches with glee, but I particularly enjoyed Mr Grayson’s ability to convey controlled anger – every insult hit home, each word was deliciously enunciated. Ms Scott also appeared in a very enjoyable sketch with Amber Jade Harrison where she hilariously ridiculed Ms Harrison’s character’s previous choice of boyfriend, outrageously assassinating the poor off-stage chap whilst she herself was horrendously clad in a ghastly sparkly pink shell suit top. Her comic timing was perfect and, despite the brevity of the sketch, we had a very strong understanding of her character.

Dean AdamsAnother sketch that worked very well featured Dean Adams and Rhiannon Flambard loafing around in the great outdoors whilst he fantasises about being a duck. It’s an immensely silly but strangely touching little scene which both actors delivered perfectly; he stood out for his ability to convey the character’s quite childlike ideas, delivered completely straight-faced, which just made it even more funny. He was also excellent in a rather dark scene with Tiana Thompson, which begins with his amusing self-congratulation on how good a lover he had been the night before, but which gets creepier as you realise that his character probably committed rape. Ms Thompson, too, was very strong as his victim, carefully but powerlessly piecing together her recollections of the night and unable to conclude whether there’s anything she can do to put it right.

Bobbie-Lee ScottThere’s a delightfully cringey scene between a painfully awkward Ross Bayliss and a voluptuously forward Freya Mawhinney where she realises, post-party, that she accidentally went off with the wrong bloke; I really liked Mr Bayliss’s self-deprecating persona in both his scenes. Daniel Peace, James Grayson and Jemma Bentley all feature in a part hilarious, part harrowing scene where a menage a trois seems to have gone seriously wrong; and Mr Peace was also excellent in a two-hander (pardon the pun) where he asked Mr Conroy to inspect his undercarriage as he thought he had a lump down there. Both actors really conveyed the awkward humour of that situation superbly.

Jemma BentleyIf I were to be handing out awards for the best performers, then I would say James Grayson, Jemma Bentley, Bobbie-Lee Scott and Dean Adams would probably be jockeying for position with the best chances. But the great thing about this Showcase is that everyone gave a great account of themselves and the standard of performance was very high. The big event is at the Soho Theatre on Friday 16th February and I’m sure the whole group will deliver some outstanding performances!

Review – Canterbury Tales, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 8th February 2018

Canterbury TalesI think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.

Alexandra PienaruThe Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.

Anna GallagherFor me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!

Ceara CoveneyI was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.

Oliver FranksDespite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.

Chloe HoffmeisterMany of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.

Canterbury TalesSo, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?

Review – Accused, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 7th February 2018

AccusedIt’s been 54 years since the last person was hanged in the UK, but it was as recent as 2004 that capital punishment was abolished under all circumstances. It’s the ultimate punishment, the ultimate deterrent, and has always been a source of passionate argument either in favour or against, depending on your view. But supposing you knew someone, or had to work alongside someone, or lived with someone, who had committed a crime so heinous that the State had decided their life had to be terminated? Would you loathe them for their crime? Pity them for facing their unavoidable fate? Befriend them in a last chance of human support?

Alexander Forrester-ColesThis devised play takes Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol as its inspiration, that haunting, haunted work analysing reaction to the death penalty by the prisoners. The condemned man had killed the thing he loved; but each man kills the thing he loves, so it’s a case of There but for the Grace of God. And that’s what the audience feels too; without knowing the crime that our prisoner has committed, we can’t have a truly informed reaction to his plight. And it’s the not knowing that really makes this a curiously intense and thought-provoking drama.

Jac BurbridgeWhen you arrive in the church, you’re disconcerted from the start. Should you sit in the pews? Should you sit in the choirstalls? There are various prisoners loafing their way around the chancel, but a burly guard has his back to you and you wonder, do I dare walk past him and sit down? You do. The prisoners are enjoying (if that’s the right word) their free association time, so you eavesdrop on conversations, games, petty squabbles, and so on. One solitary prisoner seems very uncomfortable in this environment; we later discover that he has a great aptitude for art and an addiction to accuracy –- thus I deduced he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Into this melting pot arrives the Accused; a man with a reputation so bad that (almost) all the other prisoners avoid him, swear at him, despise him. Only the autistic prisoner doesn’t avoid him, but only because there’s still 23 minutes of his free time left.

Kate Morgan-JonesThere are four guards, each with a different attitude to the prisoner. One detests him for what he has done, and doubtless will show him no mercy at any time he’s under his tender care. Another treats him like any other prisoner – which is with great kindness as she is the nurturing type. A third is ghoulishly fascinated by him – almost a fan – and wants to know how it feels to have your own death hovering so near. The fourth, whilst naturally an enforcer, is prepared to bend the odd rule to make his last few days more bearable.

Robert BarnesApart from Alexander Forrester-Coles, playing the Accused, and Jake Statham as the cleaner, this is very much an ensemble piece. Mr Forrester-Coles plays the role as the archetypal strong and silent type. He combines the mystery of the man with an essential dignity which was most impressive to witness. His self-protecting barriers are all up; refusing to answer questions, or to rise to the bait of taunting prisoners. But he will attack back if he identifies a weak spot in one of his critics’ characters, and as he gets closer to his death he does open up a little to reveal something of the man behind the mask. It’s a very strong and compelling performance and I was totally convinced by him. Just as the Accused is the man that everyone notices, Mr Statham was also excellent as the man no one notices, the cleaner; an outsider in a different way, talking out of turn to the audience as if we’re his mates, a kind of Everyman character. I would have liked to see more of him as the intensity of the play develops, to get his Everyman take on what’s going on, rather than just having him “bookend” the action. Technically, as not the best hearer in the world, I really appreciated the clarity of his speech which definitely helped his characterisation to shine through; a minor character but a major performance.

Radostin RadevWhat impressed me most about the piece was how extremely high the overall standard of performance was; in previous years, there have always been one or two people whose range and complexity has left just a little to be desired but this cast is the closest I’ve seen to a “dream team” since I’ve been watching these student plays.

Xara ChisanoKate Morgan-Jones stands out as the ringleader of the prisoner ruffians. Belligerent, argumentative, determined; you really wouldn’t want to cross her. Offering a very different characterisation, I thought Robert Barnes was superb as the loner prisoner; again very credible, his delivery was beautifully paced throughout, and you could see the complexity of his thought processes straining to get through his expressions. I also really enjoyed D B Gallagher’s junkie prisoner, responding with quiet desperation to any threat that endangers his access to drugs. Jac Burbidge also excelled in his variety of roles, both as the firebrand guard speechless with horror at having to deal with the Accused, and as the ever-so-helpful priest exchanging pleasantries with the executioner (a delightfully understated performance from Georgi McKie).

Georgi McKieI was very impressed with Radostin Radev as the ghoulishly fascinated guard; he played him with style, assurance and just a perfect touch of eerie nastiness. Xara Chisano’s performance as the fourth guard enabled you to see all her inner conflicts, which created a truly fascinating character from not many words; this was another very assured and realistic performance. And Ellen Tritton portrayed the well-meaning guard with great clarity and simplicity; I loved the way that whenever any of the prisoner’s rejected her help she carried on regardless without ever taking it personally – a very strong characterisation.

Jake StathamEveryone created a very memorable impression of their own characters and their part in the play. You could pick this production up and plonk it down in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe and it would make good money. I went home full of my own thoughts and responses to the issues raised by the play and the various characters. Exceptional stuff! Congratulations all!