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 – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths