Review – The Nubian Sky, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Looking Glass Theatre, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalAfter a packed week of dramatic highs and lows – almost entirely highs, actually – we come to the last show in this year’s Flash Festival – The Nubian Sky, a solo performance by Shemelia Lewis. It’s an examination of what it is to be a black woman today. Part celebration, part revelation, Ms Lewis takes us through a number of scenarios, including a child growing up in Montserrat with strict but loving parents and only appallingly racist cartoons on TV to watch; and a grotesque TV game show, hosted by the revolting Dave, where we’re asked to judge whether a black woman who has been subjected to domestic abuse should get justice. Fortunately, our audience agreed 100% that she should; but the TV judges, whoever they were, disagreed. And at the end we see the woman in question struggling as a result of the nationwide TV disgrace – unable to keep down her job, no longer able to study, crying out to God for some comfort. Ms Lewis painted a very disturbing and uncomfortable picture on which to end the play.

The Nubian SkyThe performance is full of contrasts. On one hand, Ms Lewis is a joy to watch. She comes across as a very likeable, rather wacky individual; her characters like to dance, to have fun, and simply, quietly, to get on with their lives. Set against this is a constant undercurrent of racism; the hideous cartoon, the denial of justice, the racist terminology in the media and around her. And whilst you sense that the spirit of survival and overcoming the odds will always prevail, that final scene of despair and abandonment tells another story.

Shemelia LewisI think it could have been even more successful if Ms Lewis had taken some of the ideas further. That cartoon, for instance, could have done with some deconstructing, rather than just showing the little girl getting bored with it. There was a scene where the schoolgirl got into trouble because of her hair; I’d have liked to understand a little more about what drove the teacher to raise the issue, and how it made everyone feel. Just a thought.

It sounds odd – and lame – to say that a play about how racism affects someone can be enjoyable, but strangely this performance was very enjoyable, because of the thoughtful and amusing characterisations and Ms Lewis’ warm sense of communication. Congratulations!

Review – The Way, Cosmos Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4h April 2019

Flash FestivalSometimes an uncomplicated, honest, one-person monologue can be more eloquent about the human condition than any classical four-act play. One such theatrical delight is Cosmos Theatre’s The Way. Vicky lies in bed, the morning after a night before, still with her make-up on, head pounding (although it could be worse), with no idea where she’s left her phone. Once she gets her act together there’s the inevitable voicemail from her mother. Which contains bad news. Vicky’s childhood friend – whom she hasn’t spoken to for ages because of some unspecified argument – has been diagnosed with cancer. Vicky’s devastated at what she hears. Is there any way of healing their rift?

The WayBy the time you get to my age, gentle reader, you lose count of the times when you said to yourself, “I wonder how so-and-do is doing, I really ought to get in touch”. But you don’t. And then you discover that they’ve died. And you never get that chance again. If you love someone – even if it makes you sound ridiculous – tell them. Because one day, you won’t be able to; and maybe they never knew. This is the prospect that Vicky faces; can she let her friend know that she held that dispute against her into the grave? Was it really that serious an argument?

Louise AkroydLouise Akroyd is a complete delight as Vicky. All messy and bed-worn at first, you can’t get much more unglamorous than Vicky’s initial appearance; but as we discover her personality, her inner beauty shines through. At times you wonder if she’s simply talking to herself, or if she’s addressing us directly through the fourth wall, or if it’s a mixture of the two. She has a wonderfully honest and confiding way of unfolding Vicky’s history and conflicts. Her performance is a closely-observed study of a young woman shocked into doing something she said she’d never do – and in the end, she’s so glad she did.

Simple, quiet, unassuming but full of integrity and honesty, this is a beautifully written and delivered dramatic monologue that will tear at your heartstrings. A mini-masterpiece!

Review – A Splice of Life, Ripple Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalThere are all sorts of ways in which a family can be created. Whilst there are still plenty around, the traditional template of Mum and Dad and 2.4 children is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Solo parenting, children born by IVF, adoption, same-sex parents, only children, are all on the increase.

A Splice of LifeSay hello to Mark and Kate. We see their first meeting, their first kiss; we see them moving into their first home, and we see them struggling to have children. Two unsuccessful rounds of IVF later and they have run out of money. But the medics have a solution – albeit an unconventional one. If they’re prepared to help with a genetic trial – which means they will have the ability to choose twelve genes for their unborn baby such as sex, eye colour, physical strength, health attributes – they get their IVF for free. For wannabe mum Kate it’s temptation beyond endurance.

Kit WilesYears later they’re a family of four. He’s got greying hair, she’s still youthful, and they’ve got adopted son Luke and IVF daughter Sophie. Like any family they have their ups and downs, but they all co-exist reasonably happily. Sophie has dedicated her life to running; if she maintains her form, she will become Olympic standard. But one day she discovers the paperwork relating to the genetic trial. And her reaction? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Meredith BarnettThis is a fascinating, extremely well-written play that asks a lot of questions about medical ethics and “playing God”. It’s peppered with great insights and engaging relationships; scenes of argumentative drama, quickly contrasted with unexpected humour. It didn’t play with my emotions much, but it really appealed to my intellect (such as it is), and makes you question yourself as to your own responses to the issues faced by the characters.

Ryan GreendaleThere are some very strong and mature performances, particularly from the female members of the cast. Kit Wiles plays Kate with supreme confidence and an absolute understanding of what the character is all about; skittish and goofy as a young woman, self-possessed and full of life experience as the older mother. I loved her performance and appreciated how well she was able to develop her character in front of us. Meredith Barnett also turns in a superb performance as the youthful Sophie, whose comfortable world is turned upside down as she discovers that her identity has been plucked off a shelf by her parents before she was born. She absolutely conveys a sense that she no longer knows who she is, and that she is no longer in charge of her own personality. You the audience realise what a painful discovery it would be to have the same loss of self, as though you had been manipulated by your parents from birth. Ms Barnett gives an assertive and immensely watchable performance.

Tim MedcalfRyan Greendale gives us a strong impression of the father figure who wants to protect his wife and family at all costs but also needs a little peace and quiet to get on with his work. His splendid confrontational scene with Ms Barnett’s Sophie is a gripping piece of drama, where he must explain his actions from the past, sometimes defending the indefensible, sometimes pinpointing her unreasonableness. There are no wrongs or rights here; it’s a moral dilemma and you can make your own decision – if you dare. Completing the quartet, Tim Medcalf makes the most of the more peripheral role of the mercurial Luke, with an enjoyable touch of arrogance and a capricious flair.

Stimulating and dramatic, and with some great flashes of humour – nobody expected Britney Spears – this is an excellent production with some great performances. Congratulations to all!

Review – Making their Mark, Face to Face Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalFace to Face Theatre have created a thirty-minute piece that looks at what it is to be a woman on earth. Now, as a man, I know full well that this is normally the kind of discussion that I’d much better sit out; no woman wants a bloke mansplaining their role in life. However, this play comes at it from a rather particular angle: what it’s like for a woman not to be able to conceive.

Making Their MarkAbigail is desperate for a child; but every time she falls pregnant, she miscarries. It doesn’t help that her sister is the mother of a sweet but noisy child, and gives her all those ridiculous pieces of advice like sticking your legs up in the air so that the sperm trickles up and all that palaver. And when the doctor whittles down the possibilities for going forward, it also doesn’t help that partner Mark is a bit of a Neanderthal on the subject and refuses to get sperm-tested because it’s an insult to his virility.

In the UK, if a woman is infertile, IVF is an option if you live in the right postcode or have sufficient cash. But IVF is no guarantee of parenthood anyway, and childlessness is a common, and increasingly less taboo status. But as the play points out, other parts of the world are not so relaxed about it. Girls in Afghanistan marry at 16 in order to knock out as many kids as possible as early as possible. In parts of Africa like Mali, FGM is still an appalling practice that renders sex painful and childbirth even more dangerous than it already is. In Uganda, a woman isn’t considered a woman unless she has children.

Amy Jane BakerAmy Jane Baker and Hannah Bacon have put together a thought-provoking little play that shows you the invasiveness of medical questioning, the jealousies of other people’s children, and the utter hopelessness that some women suffer. Ms Baker’s heartfelt sorrow at her character’s increasing frustrations and disappointments was very moving to watch. And Ms Bacon was suitably stiff and starchy as the clinical (in both senses of the word) doctor, the snide office colleague and the well-meaning but irritating sister.

Hannah BaconPunctuating the scenes of the story are little snippets of good housewifely advice from the 1950s – which very much proscribe that a woman’s place is in the home, and which also imply that Abigail is trying to be that kind of a woman. However, the play ends with a brief video asking members of the public what their advice is for a woman’s place in society today, which allows the play to end on a positive, upbeat note, and affirms that it’s really no longer necessary to be an Abigail. It might have been even more direct if the two performers had verbatim’d these comments to the audience, rather than showing it in video, which takes a step away from contact with the audience at the last, vital moment. Just a thought.

But it’s a very good play that takes an awkward subject and deals with it sensitively and with good humour. Congratulations all round!

Review – Leviticus, Not Aloud Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, The Deco, Northampton, 3rd April 2019

Flash FestivalWith the appalling news coming from Brunei of the intended execution, including stoning, of the LGBT population, there’s never been a more fitting time to bring this discrimination and violence to the attention of the general public through theatre. The Brunei situation has come about through the extreme application of Sharia Law; but closer to home there are plenty of instances of discrimination against LGBT people, citing faith as the source. For example, religious-based frenzy about teaching primary school children about LGBT sex education has gone sky high, in a deliberate distortion of the excellent work of the No Outsiders programme which actually has nothing to do with sex, and is all about living together in harmony.

LeviticusFrom some parts of Christian society, we’ve all heard the mantra, it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Far be it from me to question those people who still believe in the Garden of Eden, but times do move on. Leviticus may indeed say that it is a sin: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); but it also says you shouldn’t shave your beard or have a tattoo. You don’t see theological protests up in arms about that.

Bethany RayNot Aloud Ensemble’s imaginative and stimulating new play, Leviticus, takes four characters, each with their own secrets and issues, who find themselves idling their time in a waiting room. It’s not long before we realise this is God’s Great Waiting Room – purgatory. There’s the troubled, anxious young man with a short temper; the pious, Bible reading cleric who becomes angry each time the Lord’s name is taken in vain; the sulky teenager who likes to see how far she can push the others before she irritates them; and, new recruit, the glamorous Californian who can’t stand a silence and who acts as a catalyst for the others to open up. The three women each have a criminal past, which is presumably why they’re still waiting years – decades, even – for their Final Judgment. Each also reveals her own homophobia during the play. The fourth’s only crime was to love another man, and to get bludgeoned to death in a homophobic attack for his pains.

Samantha TurnerI don’t want to spoil the details of this excellent play for others, but I was impressed at how everyone’s backstory was slowly revealed, and came to explain the reasons why they were in purgatory. It’s a finely crafted, well written script, and brings the best out of its cast of four. Each character also has a musical moment – all beautifully, tenderly sung – and whilst you wouldn’t exactly call this Leviticus – The Musical, that extra element added depth to each of the characters and helped us understand their motivations and emotions.

Bethan MediBethany Ray is fantastic as the extrovert, verbose American, trying to dominate the proceedings as best she can, revealing her brittle interior whenever the brash exterior mask slips. To balance, Samantha Turner is also excellent as the introverted, lighter-obsessed teenager, who revels in being a pest and flies off the handle whenever pushed. This could easily have been a stereotype character, but Ms Turner made her into a very real, believable creation. Bethan Medi gives a very strong performance as the dour, puritan cleric, beyond distraught that her life of devotion has led her to sharing purgatory with such irreligious wretches. And Thomas van Langenberg gives a very clear, emotional delivery of the man who is furious that his life has been brought to an end by the ignorance and savagery of others.

Thomas van LangenbergIn addition to the play and performances, the staging is superb with some very effective and heart-stopping use of lighting, and the musical accompaniments were exquisite. I’ve only got one slight quibble with the play; the placard moment, I felt, was an unnecessarily unsubtle addition to what was otherwise a very skilful and profound work, which had already conveyed the messages on the placards much more eloquently. But that is a minor quibble! This is a fine production, sharing an important message and superbly performed. I loved it!

P. S. Also, congratulations on creating a programme that was interesting and informative to read!!

Review – A Minute to Midnight, Ruminate Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 3rd April 2019

Flash FestivalThree young women share a flat, all perfectly nice and ordinary on the face of it; one of them meets a fourth girl who’s currently homeless and invites her to take the spare bedroom. That all seems innocent and friendly enough. But what Imogen discovers is that her new flatmates, Connie, Harper and Freya, all have one thing in common. They’re all members of an obscure sect, Nodus Tollens; and, basically, they’re all waiting for some world-shattering cataclysmic event. Imminently. And all non-followers of Nodus Tollens will perish, leaving just a handful of people to run the world in the future.

A Minute to MidnightImogen, understandably, is sceptical. Perhaps, like me, she would expect followers of such a cult to be all miserable old men with long beards and shepherds’ crooks living in hermits’ caves. But she allows herself to be drawn in to their web, because she’s down on her luck and she needs to be friends with her new-found companions. They’ve convinced her, against her will, into taking hallucinogenic drugs, but she takes them, because she doesn’t want to offend her flatmates. However, to her surprise, Imogen finds herself a leading light in this odd religion, delivering inspirational speeches to the membership. But this success gives rise to jealousy and misunderstanding, and eventually the future doesn’t look so bright for Imogen or her flatmates.

Tonia ToselandIf I’m being a little cagey on the subject matter, that’s partly not wishing to spoil surprises but also because the play itself is rather cagey with us. The writing doesn’t give us a great insight into the group’s activities because they are, by nature, secret and obscure; and this obscureness transmits itself into the audience leaving us (well, me at least) sometimes confused as to what was going on. An inevitable consequence of this for me was, I have to confess, that my mind did start to wander at times.

Amelia ScottNevertheless, the cast went about portraying their rather intense, dark tale, with some excellent characterisation and committed performances. Tonia Toseland gives a strong and convincing portrayal of Connie, the group’s leader, with her natural authority bordering on domestic tyranny. Amelia Scott provides a nicely underplayed sense of humour to the role of Harper, distinctly bottom of the pecking order, being virtually ordered to work as a kitchen lackey by the rest of the group, whilst still being quietly supportive of everything they do.

Mia LeonieMia Leonie has a great stage presence and plays Freya with a quirky unpredictability. At first she’s excited by the presence of Imogen, and hangs on her every word; but once she starts to climb the ladder of success, Ms Leonie convinces us with her portrayal of Freya’s thinly suppressed antagonism and envy. And Georgie Morna-Arkle is excellent as the fish-out-of-water Imogen, easily manipulated and eager to please, whose slow, wide-eyed curiosity takes her unexpectedly to the top.

Georgie Morna-ArkleA couple of things bothered me. Connie ruthlessly searches Imogen’s rucksack when she first comes to stay, looking for reasons to distrust her. Harper is shocked by this invasion of privacy; yet when Freya watches Connie rifling through her friend Imogen’s possessions she doesn’t react. That didn’t feel believable to me. Also, the play ends with a recorded police interview, aggressively terminated by the officer who said they didn’t believe a word of the suspect’s excuses. I’m no expert, but that’s not how they do it on 24 Hours in Police Custody! The police are normally at pains to tell the suspect that this is their opportunity to explain what happened; they’re usually very grateful not to just hear a string of “no comments”. So that also struck me as highly unlikely – particularly as it’s on the record.

The play set up a good level of intrigue and mystery but for me didn’t have quite enough highlight moments of comedy, horror or suspense that would have kept it going forwards. Nevertheless, enjoyable, and technically flawless, congratulations to all!

Review – Oh Arthur, Framed Ensemble, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Looking Glass Theatre, Northampton, 2nd April 2019

Flash FestivalMeet Arthur. Everyone knows an Arthur. He’s an egocentric lazy git, who sleeps in late, disrespects his parents, is disruptive at work and takes his girlfriend for granted. He’s a whining whinger who blames everyone else for his problems and never takes responsibility for himself. One day he answers an advert for Therapy with a Push – a new counselling service designed to help you get your life together and make a fresh start. There he meets his new therapist, Steve. Will Arthur’s life ever be the same? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.

Oh ArthurWithin the confines of the Flash Festival, I think full-on comedy is the hardest thing for the performers achieve over the course of an hour’s play. When it works, it really, really works, and when it doesn’t…. There have been a couple of absolutely splendid comedies that I’ve seen during Flash week over the last few years: last year’s Deciding What to do with Dad had great characters and a really dark feel to it, and the physical comedy and clowning in What if they were Wrong in 2016 was a sheer delight. I know comparisons are odious, but I have to say, I’ve not seen a Flash Festival play that made me laugh so much as Framed Ensemble’s Oh Arthur.

Tyler ReeceThe genius of this show is that you have two immensely likeable performers, both playing to their strengths; one, Simon Roseman as Arthur, nearly always centre stage, and at the centre of his selfish, indolent universe, and the other, Tyler Reece as everyone else, moving in and out of Arthur’s world in a variety of voices and costumes. Mr Reece has a true gift for comedy; a comedian’s face and a knowing style. You can completely believe him as your socially inept best mate or your priggish work colleague with all their little idiosyncrasies; and you can even believe him as Arthur’s mum in her wig and apron, or his girlfriend, in her best Dorothy Perkins. Mr Reece delivers a coup-de-comedie (I don’t know if that’s a phrase; it is now) that stops the show, revealing his brilliant feel for comic timing. That’s his strength; supremely confident and in total control, whilst still coming across like one of the lads.

Simon RosemanMr Roseman, too, is absolutely on fire in this production. He commands that stage like a young Ricky Gervais; Arthur’s character is appalling, so why are we on his side? But we are, because Mr Roseman lets us into Arthur’s world with complete honesty and openness. A lot of the fun comes from the audience both criticising and identifying with his behaviour. I loved his vocal command throughout the entire show; his is another supremely confident performance and you know he’s never going to put a foot wrong. When the audience has complete trust that the two actors are going to deliver the best possible show, we all go home happy.

There’s an element of playing to the audience and breaking the fourth wall – this works perfectly because they don’t overdo it. And whilst you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a comedy show – Oh Arthur has its tongue firmly in its cheek – at the same time you genuinely believe the conflicts and the emotions between the characters. It may be played for laughs but you’re genuinely upset for his mum when Arthur treats her badly and you’re genuinely delighted when he and his babe are reconciled at the end (oops, sorry, spoiler alert.)

Completely won over by the story, the script, and the two fantastic performers. With a tiny bit of tightening up here and there, this could wow them at the Edinburgh Fringe. A sheer pleasure to watch, and I really hope it has a life after Flash.