Review – National Theatre Connections, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th April, 4th & 5th May 2017

Connections 2017Last year was my first assay into the world of the National Theatre Connections, and I’m back again this year, encouraged, as always, to get involved by the very committed Mr Smallmind. This is when several local youth theatre groups participate in performing the same plays in many different parts of the country. Just like last year, I wasn’t able to see all the plays on offer at the Royal and Derngate, but I saw five, and here’s what I thought of them!

The Snow Dragons by Lizzie Nunnery, performed by Harris Academy Theatre Group in the Underground, 27th April.

Snow DragonsWhilst playing in the woods and the mountains, Raggi and her friends find themselves in the middle of a military incursion, and their games of war suddenly become reality. Raggi is the natural leader but it is young Odd who receives the blessing of the King and will go on to greatness. A curious play full of threat and danger, that makes children grow up into adults faster than they are prepared for it.

I was really impressed with the stage discipline of this cast of 22 as they crammed their way onto the acting space in the middle of the Underground. Fisticuff romps, battle scenes using broom handles, bags of swag and some intricate costumes and other props didn’t get in their way – or indeed our way, as the audience are really close to the action. This was ensemble work properly well done, and you could almost feel the trust the actors had in each other – a fine achievement.

The programme offered two alternative cast lists for earlier performances in April, so I can’t be 100% sure of who played who, but there were a few stand-out performances from the young actors, largely due to those individuals’ having great stage presence and excellent vocal authority. For me, Lizzie Ashmore as Sig, Ben Lole as Harri and Joe Viggars as Gunnar were all first rate and held the audience’s attention with ease; you should all definitely keep at the acting, guys, because you could go a long way. But everyone played their part extremely well and made what I sense is quite a complex play clear and understandable. Good work all!

FOMO by Suhayla El-Bushra, performed by Hinchingbrooke School, in the Underground, 27th April.

FOMOThe lives of a group of school students as seen through their social media updates; and what would happen if, one day, the Internet just stops. A smart, clever, thought-provoking play that tells its clear story sharply and to the point – and given a smart and sharp production by this talented group of young actors. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out – I am so up wiv da kidz it hurts – and I confess it’s a modern-day malady that I myself can suffer with. And it’s the hollowness of the society norm that this play presents that really makes you think twice about living your life online. Hashtag vaguebookingselfdoubt, 147 likes.

As is often the case, these Connections plays call for considerable ensemble playing skill, and these students from Hinchingbrooke have it in abundance. The only two pieces of advice I would have for the team is to remember that when you’re on stage you’re always being looked at, even if you’re not actively participating in the scene, so a) it’s a great idea not to fiddle with your crotch and b) don’t let your eyes wander to see if the audience are enjoying the show. Have confidence that they are!

There was no programme for this show (minus mark) but it was a triumph for the female members of the cast and a little patchier for the guys. But overall, a very enjoyable performance, you did the script credit and gave us some genuine moments of stage magic. Congratulations!

Status Update by Tim Etchells, performed by Northampton College, at the Royal Theatre, 4th May.

Status UpdateA stage littered with old fashioned forms of communication – filing cabinets, 1960s telephones and a couple of old computers, one of which is scrolling merrily away in meaningless DOS. To contrast: our cast come on stage, each armed with a smartphone, each one busily tapping away the latest social media updates. That’s a nice visual juxtaposition, as the ensemble form themselves into more and more of a pack, all performing the same movements, expressing the same online sentiments.

However, having given us an interesting dramatic opening, what follows can’t really be called drama at all. It’s basically a couple of lists. A list of the things “we know” and a list of the things “we don’t know”. They know that one member of the cast, for example, is the most likely to cry. They don’t know, for example, whether they can trust the members of the audience. Each member of the cast delivers a sentence, then another delivers another, and so it goes on as a fairly random procedure. I don’t know if there was a way of making this more dramatically interesting, but I’m afraid I thought this was very dull material to work with. The guys did the best they could, but it was all I could do to just about stay awake.

A couple of the cast stood out for me as being really comfortable in their roles; no programme, but Mr Smallmind came to the rescue as he had seen it before, so he was able to help me identify who was who. I really enjoyed the performances of Oli and Victoria, and I also thought Luke and Josh invested their roles with plenty of personality, which really helped the play along. Nevertheless, everyone gave top effort and did themselves proud. I’m just sorry you didn’t have more rewarding lines to deliver.

Extremism by Anders Lustgarten, performed by Milton Keynes College, in the Royal Theatre, 4th May.

ExtremismWow. Just wow. At first I wasn’t entirely sure about this play; I thought it felt a little lumpy, that it was a sledgehammer to crack a nut and that it would steamroller its message in a rather unsubtle way. (I was wrong.) We’re in a world where, with one phone call from a teacher, the police come into a school and take away one of your classmates. Jamal. Within a few minutes his Facebook profile has been taken down, and all the photos of you with him have gone missing, even from your own albums. What did he do? It’s all because of Prevent, which, in my sheltered life, is something I’d never heard about and had to research.

Within the class, coming to terms with what’s happened, surprise turns to suspicion, suspicion turns to fear, fear turns to accusation, and accusation turns to violence. We witness the growing stresses within this pressure cooker environment as friend turns against friend and bigotry and hatred raise their ugly heads. Everything gets out of hand, building to a Lord of the Flies-type crescendo; but it just takes one, authoritative, wise voice of sanity to see through the lies, cut the crap and speak out, and maybe – just maybe – disaster can be averted.

This was a really strong production, with an emotional play brought vividly to life by an excellent cast. I really loved the very real representation of abuse, both mental and physical, and the very convincing portrayal of bullying violence. Everyone worked together to build a very strong ensemble, but I was most impressed by Asly Mohamed as the defiant Suhayla, Ahmed Kassim as Jamal’s self-doubting friend Manny, Kizzie Bishop as the menacing Melina, Estelle Wilkinson as the vindictive (but eventually beautifully ashamed) Rachel and George Maycock as Samuel, the geek worm who turns.

A fine piece of work given a fantastic performance and thoroughly deserving its standing ovation.

#YOLO by Matthew Bulgo, performed by the Mark Rutherford School, at the Royal Theatre, 5th May.

#YOLOIt’s A-level results time and as everyone gets their all-important letters telling them their grades, everyone is glad that they’re going on to the uni of their choice. Even Jack, despite suffering from these constant headaches. He gets an outpatient appointment on the same day the results come out – and it’s not good. Not even 18 yet and he has a brain tumour. The play takes us on Jack’s journey from that point, how it affects his friendships and relationships, right up until the time he goes for his operation.

I feel it’s a rather neat play – too neat, really, with not enough raw power and emotion to break down the walls of its structure and spill out messily into our subconscious. There’s devastation here, of sorts; but I would have thought it could be even more apocalyptic for our hero than Mr Bulgo cared to write.

The play starts and ends with some dancey mime that I don’t think really adds much to our understanding of the characters or their situation; if it’s meant to emphasise the title by stressing that you only live once, well, for 17 and 18 year olds just out of class I would have thought that was a given.

There were some good performances: Lewis Snell conveyed all Jack’s confusion and disbelief very well, and there were two great scenes – one, where he tries to tell his sister, played by Lydia Geronikolos, about how ill he is, and she can’t, or won’t, take it all in; and another, where his girlfriend played by Dani Reynolds misunderstands Jack’s inability to communicate and she ditches him in disgust. However, those highlights didn’t quite convince me into thinking this was a great production of a great play, and when it was over I felt that it really only scratched the surface of what was possible here. Still there was nice ensemble work from everyone, accurate choreography, and well done for not getting flummoxed when the glass of water got kicked over.

So, from my five excursions into this year’s world of NT Connections, I come out with more positives than negatives. This may sound like faint praise, but not one of the productions came remotely close to being as poor as the really bad one from last year. I saw at least five actors who really excelled on stage and who could go on to great things in the future if they want to pursue a career in theatre. If this were a drama festival and I had to pick one “winner”, it would be a no-brainer: Extremism, performed by Milton Keynes College. My only regret is not being able to see more of this year’s productions – I have heard from Mr Smallmind that some of them have been truly excellent. Still, there’s always next year!

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