Review – Balm in Gilead, University of Northampton BA Acting (Creative Acting) Third Year Students, Maidwell Hall, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Balm in GileadOne of the great things about theatre, gentle reader, is that you never stop learning. The title of this 1965 play by Lanford Wilson comes from the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 11 (that’s what Wikipedia says anyway, so it must be right) and is the name of an ancient cure-all medicine first used in the mountainous Gilead region of present-day Jordan. Who knew? It’s also the name of a traditional African American spiritual, where the poor suffering singer looks to the balm of Gilead to heal their sin-sick soul. A starkly ironic title then, for this play (which has been brought up to date by the Creative Acting team and set in the UK) observing the criss-cross lives of addicts, pushers and sex workers as they socialise, fight and support each other at a drop-in café.

Joe RobertsThe Maidwell Hall was transformed into a vibrant and dynamic stage area, with seating on three sides, all the café tables spread in the centre, but also with satellite acting areas; some remote bedrooms and refuges, and some pathetic (in that it wouldn’t keep you warm) cardboard box housing. At one stage we were asked to leave our seats and walk back towards the entrance where a hotel bedroom scene unfolded; it must have felt strange for the couple in bed suddenly to have thirty odd strangers just march into their bedroom. I felt the whole staging gave the play an immersive edge that always appeals to me.

Charlie-Dawn SadlerIt’s a challenging play, with so much going on all at the same time, and so many concurrent conversations striving for our attention, that at first I felt disappointed in myself at not being able to concentrate on everything that’s going on. But I guess that discomfort is what the writer wants to you feel; if you were at a party, say, and groups of people were having various conversations all at the same time, you wouldn’t expect to be able to eavesdrop and comprehend them all. This also added to that edginess that permeates the play. The whole cast excelled at creating a sense of disparate, passionate conversation between couples, spilling over into small groups, and sometimes uniting everyone in the same rowdy exchange; very effective organised chaos.

Bobbie-Lee ScottAt the heart of the play is Joe, played by Joe Roberts; a seemingly decent enough guy who clearly knows right from wrong but in that environment it’s hard always to do the right thing; and, essentially, he’s weak. He’s got himself involved with an unseen underworld boss by name of Frank, whom he owes for the supply of some addictive substance that Joe passes on to his customers at 100% markup. Nice work if you can get it, and Joe keeps it reasonably discreet. But is he savvy enough both to service his clientele and to grease the palm of his supplier in a timely manner? After meeting new girl in town Darlene, a classy American who’s a definite upgrade on the usual girls he meets (no offence, ladies), he decides it’s time to change his ways – especially as a night of passion with Darlene means he misses a vital meeting with his underworld bosses. Another lesson from this play is that every action has its consequences; for Joe, the consequences are considerable.

Jemma BentleyCharlie-Dawn Sadler gives a strong performance as Darlene, nicely balancing the character’s superior nature with just a hint of vulnerability mixed with genuine warmth. She has to deliver a very long solo speech which completely breaks up the pattern of the rest of the play; it’s a tough call to hold the audience’s attention for that length of time but Ms Sadler nailed it. Mr Roberts brings out some of the lightness and comedy of what is a growingly dismal situation, and he took the role with great confidence and presence. I’ve no idea if Mr Roberts is Liverpudlian or if Ms Sadler is American, but if not their accents were tremendous and beautifully sustained. It would be fascinating to see them perform other roles in different accents.

Amber Jane HarrisonThe production benefits from the fact all the roles were very convincingly performed and, I think, for the first time for me watching a large cast of Northampton Uni students in a production, there wasn’t one performer who underdelivered. But I would like to mention a few names who stood out for me. I particularly liked Bobbie-Lee Scott as Dopey; her role requires her to address the audience directly which she did with magnificent cheekiness and great comic timing – there were some wonderful asides that felt off-the-cuff but I’m sure weren’t. Jemma Bentley as Lyn, the café proprietor, gives a strong performance of natural authority, and filling out the character so that we really understood her; a calming influence where required, but a Rottweiler if she’s crossed.

James Alistair WalkerFor technical vocal clarity I appreciated the clear and powerful delivery by Amber Jane Harrison as Ann, the strident prostitute with a soft side; and, in relatively minor roles, I also thought that both Tiana Thompson as Rust and Adam Holmes as Martin (I hope I have identified those characters correctly!) were really convincing as hopeless-case junkies to whom your heart went out as they crashed through life. But for me the star performanceTiana Thompson was by James Alistair Walker as Franny, with a truly strong stage presence in his day-job appearance as Frank’s enforcer – never before have steady, deliberate footsteps sounded so intimidating – and even more so when leading her spare time drag/transvestite lifestyle. Clear, cutting, precise delivery, with a great feel for the language and total control of his space. Definitely One To Watch.

Adam HolmesIt’s a very thought-provoking play and surprisingly well transported from its original American setting to a very credible and contemporary British equivalent. There’s great commitment from the cast to make the whole show work, and, although it’s not always a comfortable watch, it’s always compelling. Congratulations all!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting, Undergraduates 2017 Showcase Programme, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 21st June 2017

ShowcaseOver the past eight months it’s been my privilege to attend several productions featuring the 3rd Year Acting students of Northampton University. I’ve been to Isham Dark (isn’t that in The Lord of the Rings?) to see Shrapnel andShe Echoes. I’ve been to the Royal Theatre to see Posh, Pornography and Vinegar Tom. I saw all fifteen of this year’s Flash Festival shows. And I was honoured to be invited to attend their London showcase on Wednesday, where they once again showed their talent in front of an audience including many theatrical agents and directors.

Karr KennedyWhilst I also saw the 2016 bunch at the Royal and in some Flash shows, I didn’t get to see their early productions and I didn’t see their showcase. The benefit of seeing individual performers in at least four different productions is that you can really get a sense of their versatility, their strengths, their vocal abilities and so on. You can see when an individual really excels in a role, or when they rise to a challenge and really surprise you; just as sometimes you can see when someone takes an unsuitable role, or for some reason just doesn’t bring to the stage what you hope from them. I love going to the theatre – I always want to enjoy it, I always want to appreciate the best of what I see. And that is my watchword for when I write a review; I will always try to concentrate on the good, and if I have criticisms, I try to be constructive with them. But I also always have to be honest, because there’s simply no point in doing it if I’m not. As at today I think I’ve seen approximately 1450 productions – so I do have quite a lot of experience from the front stalls!

Ben HamptonThe showcase was a fascinating experience for me to witness for the first time. Almost all the students appeared in fifteen short sketches or playlets, either parts of a longer work or mini-masterpieces in their own right. It seemed to me that it was essential to make the correct choice to show off each individual’s most marketable qualities. Use of humour was important; two of the pieces were absolutely hilarious, and in both cases the four performers – Karr Kennedy and Jessica Bichard in Diary of a Madman, and Lauren Scott and Olly Manning in Beyond Therapy – came across with really top quality performances. High drama also works well: scenes with great conflict, soul searching, confrontation and argument were memorable and brought out the best in the performers: Olivia Sarah Jayne Noyce and Benjamin Hampton in a scene from Closer, Victoria Rowlands and Joseph T Callaghan in The Mercy Seat, and Steven Croydon, Connor McCreedy and Jack James in First Light all excelled here.

Becky FowlerIt’s when the scene really feels like it’s part of a much larger work that I sometimes felt the performers had a harder task to project themselves. Nevertheless, I thought that Kundai Kanyama and Ben Barton created a fascinating scenario in their scene from Let the Right One In, as did Jennifer Wyndham, Becky Fowler and Jessica Bridge in Di and Viv and Rose; both scenes were very engaging and the actors created very identifiable and believable characters. There were some quirky scenes too; Luke Mortimore and Tom Garland presenting a very disconcerting but strangely convincing scenario in Perve; and Jennifer Etherington and Rachel Graham-Brown rounding ominously on the hapless Daniel Ambrose-Jones in the picnic from hell in Morning. Regarding the six sketches I haven’t mentioned – that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them or think they were well performed, but perhaps they didn’t quite have the same impact as the others.

Victoria RowlandsIt was great to talk to so many of this year’s “team” after the show, and to hear about what plans they have for the immediate future and in which directions they hope the careers will go long term. They really are a splendid bunch of people! What I learned specifically from an alcohol point of view was that Helena Fenton is not to be trusted with any sharp movements if you have a full glass in your hand (almost a calamity), Chris Drew can’t pour prosecco for toffee and Hans Oldham was shocked when I lurched for a third glass of the aforementioned prosecco – although less so when we agreed to share the remainder of the bottle.

Liam FaikI was there with my friend and co-reviewer A Small Mind at the Theatre and he has very bravely committed to paper his award-winners for the year. Whereas last year there were a few absolutely stand-out performers that were very obviously the best, this year, for me, choosing the best is a much harder task. I’ve had a stab at selecting my favourites, but I cannot come up with a short-list that I think truly represents everyone’s capabilities. To be honest, any one person from this intake is a potential star in the making. All I can do is wish everyone the very best of luck and I look forward to following everyone’s careers in the future – and thanks again for a year’s worth of great shows!

Review – Dispensable, March Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 26th May 2017

March TheatreThe soldier: the man on whom everyone relies; his fighting colleagues, his Generals and Field Marshals, his countrymen. The man whom we expect, as a nation, to lay down his life for us if need be. The man who, when he comes home, may face many forms of hardship, both financial and mental. And although the nature of warfare may change over the decades and the centuries, the individual experience of the soldier up close to the fighting remains the same – the ultimate test of strength, will, self-belief, cunning, and sheer brassneck.

Ruark GouldI’m aware that I’ve described my impression of a soldier at war in purely masculine terms; that’s not to decry female soldiers, it’s just that Dispensable is Ruark Gould’s one-man play and therefore depicts the soldier as a man. He is a man of the past, the present and the future; and this play unites all three to convey just some of the emotions and experiences they have to endure.

In the tiny vault in the basement at Hazlerigg House, the audience sat in two rows, traverse style, as we watched the soldier in his natural environment. It could be a dug-out, a cave, an underground office; the acting space and the performance really complemented each other, and Mr Gould made exceptional use of it to play out the characters’ frustrations, agonies, exercises, and indeed, deaths. Our imagination had to do a lot of the work, but it certainly paid off.

DispensableAn intriguing performance, with a fascinating music choice to reflect soldiers of all the ages. Technically, I admired Mr Gould’s weapon handling – although I expect if he’d held the butt of his rifle it would have literally gone through the roof. I also appreciated the excellent clarity of his vocal delivery – I don’t always hear everything (getting on, I guess!) so it’s great to be able to relish every word. Structurally, I felt there were a lot of very short scenes, and maybe the audience would have felt even more involved with fewer, longer scenes, just so that they have time to identify with the soldier and the situation he’s facing. Just a small quibble. But overall, I thought it was fascinating, thought-provoking, and very well performed.

Flash FestivalP. S. I saw this show on Friday afternoon, 26th May and it was the last Flash Festival show for me this year – I saw all fifteen! Thanks to everyone who worked their hardest to make it a success, from the organisers to the performers, the techies and everyone behind the scenes. It was an amazing four days and I saw some superb talent. Best of luck to everyone for your future careers!

Review – Click Here, Stern Mystics Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th May 2017

Click HereA Parkinsons’ sufferer is drawn into crime against his better judgment simply to receive a drug to alleviate his symptoms; a young loafer is forced to work against his will for his philandering prospective brother-in-law; a neo-Nazi blogger is willingly interviewed about his beliefs, but his own life experience makes him change his opinion. These three separate strands weave together in a play that challenges perceptions of what’s right and what’s wrong, and asks, how far down the line will you go to do the wrong thing in the pursuit of the right?

Tom GarlandI have a theory that all the best works of art, literature, and so on are those where the writer/artist didn’t know where it was going to end up and let his characters decide for him. I got the feeling, as this play progressed, that this was the case with this play. I think perhaps it started with the theme of somehow exploring the dark web and its uses/users but the characters and their relationships were strong and very realistic, and I can imagine they really took control and moved the story on to a very different final place. Whether I got that right or not, I really enjoyed the journey that these actors and their characters took us on; it was fascinating to see which characters would gain redemption, which would be punished for their ills, which would get off scot-free, and so on. I found it really engrossing, and didn’t want it to end.

Tom Garland gave us a very credible characterisation of the decent, if a bit lazy, young man who ends up working for his brother-in-law-to-be only to find out that the latter drops his trousers at the first sight of skirt; but who is basically blackmailed into keeping quiet about it – not that his cantankerous father would believe him anyway. He’s a very good example of someone who is almost too decent for their own good. He also took perhaps the least interesting role, that of the journalist interviewing the neo-Nazi, but maybe it was his straightforward, open nature that allowed his interview subject to open up so honestly.

Matt KitsonMatt Kitson was excellent as the Nazi – spouting off offensive words as though they were mere platitudes – which certainly sounded uncomfortable in the church – whilst still being exceedingly polite and mild-mannered; that characterisation was a really interesting concept. I enjoyed seeing him going through his self-questioning phase, and found his final incarnation, partying with his new eastern European friend to the beat of Polski Pop, both believable and really endearing! He also did an excellent job as the Parkinson’s sufferer’s mate; the opening scene where he is trying to be supportive, despite being rejected by his friend, due to the friend’s own frustrations and anger, was totally credible and indeed I recognised myself in the same situation in the past. A very good performance.

Chris DrewPerhaps strongest of all was Chris Drew, as the guy with Parkinson’s, adopting the symptoms with true accuracy, expressing his irritation and resentment at what the disease has done to him. I loved the way he took us through the character’s trials and tribulations and how we all came out on the other side together. He was also excellent as the volatile father, refusing to listen to sense, and also in the minor roles of the Office Supervisor and the Polish Pal. For each role he adopted a clearly different voice and accent and they’re all superb.

Definitely one of the most absorbing plays in the Festival, combined with three excellent performances. Perhaps this could be developed more and maybe have a new life in the future? I would hope so!

Review – Exposure, Imagine That Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Dorian GrayImagine That Theatre Company present The Picture of Dorian Gray in the style of the Mischief Theatre Company presenting The Play That Goes Wrong. It’s the age-old story of the picture in the attic that gets witheringly older whilst the dashing Dorian remains his old handsome self. I too am practising this art; sadly, both me and my portrait are ageing visibly so something’s going wrong. Not as much that goes wrong with the Imagine That Theatre Company’s version, of course.

Dorian Gray was never like thisUnlike every other production in the Flash Festival, with the possible exception of The Time Travel Tour, this is the only one that has no pretence to anything serious whatsoever. No sirree. This is played purely for laughs, which is much harder than it looks. Frequently humour emerges organically out of serious subject matter. But to make your audience laugh at what is almost exclusively slapstick or the ridiculous is a tough call, and to write the perfect slapstick vehicle for these five talented actors would probably take ten times as much effort and time than they probably had all year. So, inevitably the play was a little patchy, with some sequences that were genuinely hilarious and some that were borderline tiresome.

So I’m going to dwell on all the good things! The largely improvised (at least I think it was) opening scene with Lewis Hodson and Lee Hancock as Roger and Colin looking for each other was absolutely brilliant. Mr Hodson has a wonderful po-faced expression that can take on so many different meanings with just a twitch of an eyebrow – a real gift that he used to excellent advantage. How can just idly repositioning the flats and then accidentally screaming at the unexpected sight of an audience be so funny? He makes it so. Lee Hancock too, listens out for a tiny giggle from the audience and then bounds over to them with the biggest intimidating glare to stop them from laughing – so they laugh more, much to his growing fury. Messrs Hodson and Hancock aimlessly chased each other all round the set for ages – probably about ten minutes; totally pointless, absolutely hysterical.

Imagine That castOther good things: I really enjoyed the overall performance of Lauren Scott as she flipped from being the stern Dorian Gray (think Gabrielle Glaister as Bob in Blackadder II) to being herself (or at least the actor playing herself playing Gray. I think.) She was all roister-doister one minute and girly-pearly the next; very nicely done. I also liked the on-off relationship between her and narrator/boss Hans Oldham (or the actor playing Hans Oldham… you get the picture) – including a very nice moment when he’d pushed his luck too far and she wasn’t having any of it. I enjoyed Ben Barton’s performance as the easily hurt and not-very-good stand-in actor from the Local Actor’s Society; his splendidly vacant expression smeared with half-on/half-off lipstick is the stuff of nightmares.

Imagine that cast 2The performance was clearly inspired by the group’s visit to The Play That Goes Wrong, and maybe the whole thing lost a little originality as a consequence. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of content in here – comedy idea after comedy idea meant there was possibly too much; the phrase less is more occasionally came into my mind. There was one repeated gag that really got on my nerves, and the whole thing could have done with a punchier ending. However, there’s no doubting it was very funny, the very likeable cast worked their socks off to please us and it was met with virtually maniacal laughter from the audience. This was a hard job but they did it well, and you can’t look back on it without a big smile on your face.

Review – The Powers That Be, Tangled Spines Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Tangled SpinesI’d never heard of Luke Rhinehart’s best-selling book The Dice Man – so I came to Tangled Spines’ homage to the story without any preconceptions. To live one’s life purely by chance is a most terrifying thing, as Rhinehart’s self-named lead character does; and creates some appalling outcomes that make your flesh crawl. After an initial (and highly entertaining) dance/movement sequence that previews the first part of the story, one of the first things we see Steven Croydon’s Luke Rhinehart do is his to throw the dice to determine whether he will rape his mistress. The die is cast; he notes the result (he doesn’t tell the audience); and the next thing you know he’s calmly and coolly admitting to his victim that he’s going to rape her. She doesn’t appear to object. In real life, this would all be unspeakably appalling; in the context of a theatrical presentation, it’s chillingly fascinating.

As the story develops, you realise Rhinehart is up to his neck in it – and he always seeks the solution by rolling the dice. He ruins his marriage, he endangers his son, he destroys relationships and he commits a helluva lot of crime. Rhinehart’s addiction to the dice becomes his own religious mania, and also shown to be the complete opposite of faith; and I enjoyed the symbolism of Mr Croydon adopting a crucifixion pose lying on the ground. However, I confess I didn’t The Powers That Beunderstand the relevance of the quotes at the beginning of the show from T S Eliot’s Burnt Norton – maybe that’s in Rhinehart’s original.

Mr Croydon’s subtle and rather subversive performance gives you a fascinating insight into Rhinehart’s soul and how black it looks there, sneakily checking the dice in his hand behind his wife’s back, always having the aces up his sleeve; quietly but firmly refusing to give a damn for anyone, including himself. Jack James gives a dynamic performance as his hearty friend and colleague (without a programme I can’t remember the characters’ names, sorry!) and he also transformed brilliantly into his mischievous but very trusting son. Jennifer Wyndham was excellent as the two abused women in Rhinehart’s life – his wife and his mistress – coping admirably with the physicality of the performance whilst being on crutches “in real life” – a great advertisement for The Show Must Go On.

Tangled spines castFast paced, exciting to watch, and compellingly staged in traverse to heighten our involvement; three excellent performances and an intriguing play to keep us enthralled throughout the whole hour. One of the highlights of this year’s Flash Festival.

Review – A Guide to Perfection, Sample Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th May 2017

Sample TheatreThere’s no end to the money that can be made from making people feel worthless about their appearance. Too fat? Too skinny? Too wrinkly? No style? Perfection is the goal, as you can see from countless magazines, TV programmes and advertisements. It’s no surprise, therefore, that an enterprising company would put together A Guide to Perfection, a residential course where people go to learn how to be more perfect in every aspect of their life. Selling us this dream, (and upselling the more expensive rooms) are two examples of perfection in the forms of April Lissimore and Samuel Littlewood; but, deep down, are they that perfect? Is perfection even possible?

Guide to PerfectionHe’s obsessed with his looks and the number of his Instagram likes. She’s obsessed with her weight and her daily calorie intake, so that she spends ages agonising over a muffin. It’s a spiral of vanity that can draw you in and drag you down. Inside, aren’t we much more like their tech operator, Kate, played by Florence Waite, who’s self-deprecating because of her low self-esteem, and knows there’s no point competing in this world of perfection. I know I gave up years ago. The characters gradually upset and disappoint themselves as they realise the distance they are from their dreams; nevertheless, with a big dollop of irony, they try to sell us the dream at the final sales pitch. My advice: don’t bother. We’re not buying.

April LissimoreIt’s a very clever idea for a performance piece and I liked how the set-up surprised us all on arriving in the studio, to discover it had been laid out cabaret-table style. It meant the audience could get a bit more up close and personal with the performers – maybe so we could see just how perfect they are – or not, Samuel Littlewoodwith the stained shirt, and the need for more make-up? In part, the action also takes place around you, which is more interesting than simply in front of you. Maybe the actors could have taken even better advantage of this layout and moved around us even more; but it’s still a relatively small room so I accept there are limits!

Florence Rees-WaiteThe production boasted three very good performances, with very believable vanity coming from the two “perfectionists” and very believable hopelessness coming from the realist. There were a couple of minor timing/memory hiccups in the final scene but nothing to worry about. Inventive, enjoyable, and a light-hearted way of making some serious points. Good work!