Review – Escape Route, Kyla Kares, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalMany of the shows at this year’s Fringe Festival came with trigger warnings. This show warned that it contained discussion about depression and suicide. I think, to be fair, that I also ought to give this blog review post a similar trigger warning. If you’re affected by suicide, or suicidal thoughts, please take care and breathe deeply before reading on.

Escape RouteSuicide. It’s a subject we have to talk about. The less we talk about it, the more people take their own life. As Kyla Williams tells us, in her bold and beautiful show Escape Route, suicide is the greatest killer of men under 40, but the statistics only tell us half the truth; although more men die at their own hand, many more women attempt suicide than men, which, it follows, means that many fail, maybe to be permanently injured or disabled as a result of their suicide attempt, or at least to continue to suffer the mental tortures that led them to trying suicide in the first place.

It’s a subject I’m willing to talk about, at length if need be; my friend’s sister took her own life many years ago by overdosing on paracetamol. There’s a sequence in Kyla’s performance where she describes the horrors of a “successful” paracetamol overdose, and I can confirm every word she says about how it causes a long, lingering, ghastly death. Two of my other closest friends have tried (fortunately, unsuccessfully) to take their own lives and I’m aware of the benefits of offering regular contact, and the open invitation to talk about anything. Just being there can save a life. Depression is a nasty business.

Kyla KaresWhilst there are a number of shocking, sad, even gruesome moments in the show, there are a number of elements that are wryly amusing – even thoroughly entertaining; for example, Kyla’s rendition of Peggy Lee’s classic Is that all there is? which I have to say was pure class. There are several extracts from verbatim accounts about how people live with depression which she invests with great character and emotion, using a wide range of voices and moods. She has a wonderful stage presence, and delivers her material with great conviction and commitment; and never has a red scarf been used for so many purposes with such creativity, subtlety and elegance.

Kyla makes no secret of the fact that this show is borne from much of her own experience, and it has been a difficult and sensitive journey bringing it to fruition. I can only say many congratulations to her for creating a very moving, powerful and honest show that may act as a catalyst to her and to her audience. And, always remember, keep an eye out for your friends.

Review – Unveiled, Myriad Theatre, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere’s probably never been a time like today that the wedding dress has had such a high profile and significance in our society. I think we forked out £80 for Mrs Chrisparkle’s wedding dress back in Nineteen hundred and frozen-to-death, and it was simple, elegant and lovely. Today you’re looking at £2000 for as much bling as you can cram onto a garment. Choosing the wedding dress from the shop is also major social event, where all the girls quaff prosecco and there’s a massive show-and-tell with the bride to be getting more feedback than she really needs. Heavens above, there was even a TV show called Say Yes to the Dress! Getting prepared for a wedding is stressful enough without adding to the drama and tension with all that hoo-ha.

But there’s also another significance to the wedding dress. If you’re ready, willing and able to get married and you’re fully happy about it, then, hurrah. But if you’re not, if you have doubts, maybe you thought that by now you’d love him, but you still don’t quite, or maybe you’ve started to go off him…. that’s when the wedding dress can take on an ogreish significance. Then there’s the miserable, caustic aunt, who always says you look fat in that dress, or you’re much too old for that style, and other confidence-boosting remarks. Why would you take her along to watch you try on wedding dresses? It’s just asking for trouble. You can tell one thing: this girl isn’t happy.

Myriad TheatreAnd that – presumably – is why we see Myriad Theatre’s Isabella Hunt, lying on the floor, writing words of distress over a plain white dress, before scooping another four wedding dresses off the rail, trying them on, taking them off and then generally writhing on the floor with them. In the end she stands in silence in the plain white dress that she has vandalised with graffiti. No comment (either by her, or, I sense, the audience.)

There’s an element of promise and expectation when you enter the room for this performance; the chairs each have an elegant number written on them, such as you might find in the seating plan for a wedding reception; and the floor is strewn with those delicate, colourful little odds and ends that people scatter on tables to give it a celebratory look.

Sadly, however, the creativity seems to stop there. Unveiled turns out to be nothing more than seventeen minutes of taking dresses on and off, writhing around the floor in agony, a very repetitive physical theatre element that I think represented a struggle (I stopped watching after the fourth time – it may have gone on for at least another half dozen times) and a few minutes of general spoken wedding/marriage angst. This is a very undeveloped piece, with few ideas that don’t go anywhere. An opportunity not taken, very disappointing, and a bit of a cheek to ask the general public to pay to see it.

P. S. Mrs C was not happy at paying £5.50 for 17 minutes of rather poor performance; that’s almost £20 an hour pro-rata and you can get much better value elsewhere.

Review – Godspeed, Far from Home Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalFor the last three plays in the Fringe Festival I was joined by Mrs Chrisparkle (it was a Sunday after all) dipping her toe into this festival for the first time. Fortunately for both of us, we started with a good one!

GodspeedFar from Home’s Godspeed, is an inventive and creative one-man play by and with Fox Neal as Ishmael Constant (which sounds like a mathematical law), trained by the military and space authorities to undertake a twelve-year journey to investigate a hole in the universe – The Anomaly. His quest is to go through the hole if possible and see what’s on the other side. He is to report back if he can; he is not expected to return home, so he’ll spend his final days like David Bowie’s Major Tom, sitting in his tin can far from the world. His only companion is a chatty, nauseously upbeat computer whom they christen Virgil; but Virgil isn’t entirely to be trusted. He gives Ishmael regular psychological health checks – and does Virgil detect that our hero might have an alternative agenda? Does that explain his attachment to his crucifix? And will he be able to get through the Anomaly and see for himself what’s there?

Far From Home TheatreInterspersed with this surprisingly exciting story are flashbacks to Ishmael’s childhood, with his warring parents – one religious, one not – and the effect of their unhappy divorce on him; and his time spent in the military, where he meets another trainee, Shay, who calls him her Space Cowboy, but refuses his offer of marriage because she has to go off on tours of duty without him. Mr Neal plays Ishmael centre stage for most of the time, keeping time with a recording of all the other voices in his story, a technical feat of high precision which he achieves brilliantly. Particularly impressive were the recordings of his parents’ muffled arguments, such as a child might hear behind a closed door, and the shatteringly effective last words that Ishmael hears from his beloved Shay.

Mr Neal invests Ishmael with finely observed characterisation; a frustrated, understated, angry, resigned and bewildered man who’s going to do his best for the world if he possibly can – whilst achieving his own private ambition as well. It’s a strong, gripping performance and he, together with all the other entertaining recorded voices from other members of the 3rd Year, keeps us totally engaged in his story from start to finish. This is another production that you could easily pick up and plonk down in Edinburgh where I think it would be a great success. Congratulations all round!

Review – Exposing Inequality, Unseen Truths Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalThe suffragettes must have been amongst the bravest people in the world at the time. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping footage of Emily Davison being trampled to death by the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. There were no winners that day; what is less well known is that jockey Herbert Jones lived the rest of his life haunted by that event – until he took his own life in 1951. But, like with most bad laws, a combination of protest, civil disobedience and strong people being prepared to be counted, eventually the law was changed so that women over the age of 30 started to get the vote in 1918; and that was reduced to the age of 21 in 1928, a few weeks after the death of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Exposing InequalityExposing Inequality focuses on an historical character that I’d never heard of before – Alice Hawkins. She, like Unseen Truths’ Jessica Harding, lived in Leicester, working in a shoe factory at the age of thirteen, quickly realising how much less she was being paid than the men who were doing precisely the same work. Pay inequality, extraordinarily, continues to this day – and this provides the main material for the play. But we also flashback to Alice Hawkins’ life; her early political involvement, her marriage to Alfred, her imprisonment for marching for equality, and her death in 1946 at the age of 83, which, considering how hard her life must have been, was some achievement in itself.

Unseen TruthsI remember the late Beryl Reid, when asked how she created her characters, used to say that she always started with their feet. If she knew how they’re feet felt – big, small, healthy, grotty, comfy shoes, tight-fitting shoes, etc – then she could work her way up to the rest of their bodies and their minds. Jessica Harding has also concentrated on the feet, lining up a series of shoes and boots along the front of the stage, which she dons for the different characters in her play. Sometimes she wears them ordinarily, as we all do, whether it be work shoes or fashion shoes; and sometimes she kneels down and just puts her hands in them and stomps them around like a child at play. Whilst initially funny, it gets a bit cumbersome as the scene continues.

And that was largely the problem I had with the whole play and performance – it tended to be cumbersome and heavy. Some of the scenes were simply too long, for example the fascinating and notable recent case of BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who resigned from the corporation on the grounds of pay discrimination. Unfortunately, Ms Harding read out what I guess was the entirety of Ms Gracie’s resignation letter – and it was long! For the sake of factual completeness, we lost dramatic interest. Being bombarded with PowerPoint presentations full of graphs, facts and figures makes for a dull day at the office, let alone when you’re watching a theatrical experience. It was a shame, because Ms Harding is obviously a very bright spark with a strong stage presence and very clear and expressive voice; and her opening address filled me with confidence for a lively, quirky look at the struggle for equality for women. But sadly, that didn’t follow through and there were times when it was a little boring, I’m afraid. Some good ideas there but it lacked that special oomph.

Review – 42 Church Lane, Battered Lemon Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalWhilst people are generally familiar with – and indeed love to trace – their family trees, there’s a growing interest in working out the genealogy of one’s home too. I spent most of the first twenty-six years of my life living in a pub that was estimated to have been built in 1535. We had a priest’s hole, and a ghost; buy me a pint one day and I’ll tell you all about what George the Ghost did for us.

But that’s for another occasion. Battered Lemon Theatre Company’s 42 Church Lane does exactly what it says on the tin; it gives you an insight into three periods of that property’s history – 1941, 2016 and 2027 (which, I know, isn’t exactly history, but you get my drift). Arthur comes home from the war early, injured, to the delight of his mother and sisters, although his little nephew Frank didn’t survive the Blitz. Megan and Jamie have just moved into their first place together, but already cracks in their relationship are beginning to show. Doctor Mia has taken advantage of the new privatised NHS to set up her own clinic at No 42, inoculating all and sundry with the MMR vaccine – and business has never been so brisk. But there are secrets, at every stage and in every age, and it would be best if they were never discovered.

42 Church LaneNot only is this terrific play beautifully written, but its construction is superb, with the way that its various scenes dovetail one another through the decades. One minute Megan and Jamie will be arguing only suddenly to become mother and daughter in the 40s. Another time wounded soldier Arthur will be teasing with his sister and then she becomes Dr Mia and he’s her journalist friend Alex. This might sound confusing, but with lighting cues and costume changes it’s all as clear as a bell. There’s even a scene towards the end where the words of 1941 become the words of 2016, as though you can actually hear the ghosts of the past haunting the present.

The excellent cast work hard to emphasise all the drama and tension of the plot. There’s a harrowing scene where one of the characters self-harms, and another when the horrors of war bring on an PTSD attack (surprisingly neither was mentioned in the trigger warnings). Books get ripped up, records get smashed and there’s a highly effective knock-at-the-door suspense (reminded me of the Porter in Macbeth) that affects two decades at the same time. The three scenes, where the abuse of trust that has been building is most noticeably revealed, from all three eras, are all performed with gripping tension and agonising sadness.

Battered LemonThe performances are excellent throughout. Amy Catherine excels as the hard-nosed pharmaceutical physician Mia, tentatively wondering whether there’s a future in the on-off friendship with Alex, whilst working nineteen to the dozen getting all the vaccinations done, and with her bedside manner slipping drastically under pressure. Samuel Jordan gives a fine performance as the cautious Alex and as the lame Arthur, thrilled to be home in the bosom of his family, no matter what it took to get there.

De-Anna Matthews cuts an essentially tragic figure as the out of place Ruth, mourning her child, being replaced at work, torn between family loyalty and a need to take some kind of revenge for Frank’s death. Erin Thorpe is excellent as the mother and the mentally abused Jamie, pathetically caving into Megan’s demands; and, perhaps with the stand-out performance, Shannon Couchman makes a devastatingly terrifying Megan, who switches from manipulative control freak to being a severely vulnerable victim herself, and also as the baby of the family Lily, curled up on the floor to listen to stories or playing hysterically with her cuddly toys.

Terrific performances, and a beautifully devised play. Congratulations all on a great job!

P. S. The Saffron Restaurant sells Indian, not Chinese food. #JustSaying!

Review – Paris la Nuit, Nostalgia Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 1st May 2019

Fringe FestivalLocked away in the cold, dark, dank basement of Hazelrigg House is not the most comfortable of locations but I can’t think of anywhere more perfect for Nostalgia Theatre Company’s production of Paris La Nuit. Even the stale smell of cigarettes and vin de pays that greets you conjures up a murky, tawdry bar in an unfashionable district of the French capital, where Jean Clement plays jazz for his regulars until war comes and he signs up. But on his return years later, he is startled by the appearance of a young orphaned boy, Mathieu, living in his old bar. Traumatised into speechlessness, terrified of his shadow, he’s just trying to find a place to survive. Kind-hearted Clement can’t kick the boy out, so he gets him to wait tables in return for his bed and board. The friendship develops between the two as Mathieu comes to regard Clement more and more as a father figure, but is it a bond that can withstand Clement’s past catching up with him?

Paris La NuitFor a period feel, this absolutely scores ten out of ten. Rickety tables, odd vintage crystal wine glasses, Parisian pictures, open cigarette cases, plus a plinky-plonk piano and a bar that has seen better days – the attention to detail is formidable et magnifique. With memories of Piaf, and an impromptu performance of Charles Trenet’s La Mer, the whole performance has a Gallic charm and vulnerability that truly stands out. There are moments of humour too, such as in the boy’s reaction to Clement’s liaison with a lady of the night, and his earnest, scrupulous cleaning of the tables.

Jean et MathieuSamual Gellard’s performance as Clement is authoritative, calm, measured, sensitive and you really feel you know exactly what makes him tick. Either his French accent is terrible, or, he’s doing a brilliant impersonation of someone from a region of France where the accent is terrible! Either way he still delivers much of the dialogue in fast, confident French, deliberately difficult enough to challenge any audience member who got A level French over forty years ago. But I was able to follow much of the dialogue, so kudos to both him and me for that. The unnamed young actor who plays Mathieu is absolutely brilliant, his facial expressions providing all the eloquence he needs to get his meanings across. And the two of them together provided some surprisingly touching moments. That must have been cigarette smoke in my eye.

At times I did find the story a little hard to follow; I wasn’t quite sure who it was who was catching up with Clement, and whether the money being extorted was simply a protection racket or a blackmail for something he’d done. But, at the end of the day, it really didn’t matter, and any fog in the storyline was a perfect reflection of the fog in his jazz bar. Two charming and convincing performances that waft you away to a distant world of the chanteuse, the raconteur and late night Pernod. Bien fait, mes amis!

Review – I Believe, OVM – Our Voices Matter, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 1st May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere was advance additional information sent out to the audience members of I Believe. First – wear black party attire, because it’s a celebration of black excellence. I wore my black Levis, black Loïc Nottet t-shirt, and casual black tuxedo. Even if I say so myself, I looked pretty nifty for someone who’s got an AWFULLY big birthday coming up next year. Talking of which, the second advance notice was to bring ID. No ID, no entry, them’s the rules. I haven’t been asked my ID since the 1980s, but, as a naturally obedient chap, I brought my passport. Just as well, as it was the first thing that the no-nonsense nightclub manager asked for when I got to the front door. I knew she was going to be trouble later on.

Receiving that advance information helps give you expectations about what’s to follow, which meant, for me, that I was really looking forward to seeing this show. And what Na-Keisha Glenn and her OVM team have created is a very strong sense of occasion, using the basement nightclub at the Platform to its fullest extent, with rows of complementary drinks on the bar, proper loud R&B through the speakers, dazzling disco lights, gregarious welcome hosts Joycelyn and Azreal, snazzy MC Black Dynamite singing and dancing on stage, and “token white girl” Rosemarie giving it large on the decks. Although you knew it was an artificial situation, a play, it felt 100% real. So when innocent young Lisa turns up, and there’s a bit of a rumpus on the dance floor, and she’s escorted away, you really feel as though you’re watching a genuine event unfold before your eyes.

I BelieveLisa’s young. She’s naïve. She’s heard that R. Kelly is coming to Northampton and she cannot believe her luck that she’s going to meet her hero. She’s got all the merch. And she’s prepared his song I Believe I Can Fly to sing to him. Would we like to hear it? Of course we would. She’s got a great singing voice. She really could become a star. Especially if he spends some time with her.

Vignettes of a harrowing night out, with vicious bouncers, assault, violence and a terrifying abrupt ending which stuns us into silence, all framed by a fun party with mates to cool music in a sophisticated club, the stark contrast of the pleasure and the pain is very powerfully presented. After we clearly witness an abduction, with the victim kicking and screaming, and no one is helping her, I said to Joycelyn that I was worried about her and should we see that she’s ok, but Joycelyn replied that, no, she’s just a teenager kicking off… And that’s how easily violence and assault can be overlooked. Alongside these scenes we hear genuine radio news reports about the allegations against R. Kelly, as well as reading posters on the way out about how he has used his position of influence to abuse underage girls. Sadly, that naïve young Lisa is probably just one of many to have their innocence taken away so wickedly. As for Joycelyn and Azreal, in real life they’re two girls who have lived with R. Kelly for many years. No wonder our Joycelyn wasn’t bothered to step in to help someone who was clearly in trouble.

Na-Keisha GlennPerforming most of these roles is Na-Keisha Glenn and she is superb. A terrific singer, a strong stage presence, and a beautifully clear and expressive speaking voice, she is definitely One To Watch. Lesley ‘Rietta’ Cobbina, Nicolle Harris, and Elias Chambers provide great support as the rest of the nightclub performers. A unique entertainment with a forceful message, and unquestionably a highlight of this year’s Fringe Festival.