Review – O,FFS, Ytho? Theatre, University of Northampton Graduate Students, Avenue Campus, Northampton, 24th October 2018

Watch out for spoilers in this review!!

OFFSOne of the productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I weren’t able to see at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer was O,FFS, a devised comedy about office life and the political machinations that take place therein. I’d seen that it had some good reviews, but, as Mrs C always says, you can’t see everything. Normally, if you miss a decent show at the Fringe, you’d be very lucky to ever get a chance to catch it somewhere else second time round. But, as luck would have it, Ytho? Theatre, which consists of four strong alumni from the last couple of years’ pick of Acting Students at the University of Northampton, have brought back their O,FFS to their alma mater so their contemporaries could see what they’ve been getting up to since graduating; and, fortunately, Mr Smallmind and I managed to get tickets for one of the performances.

Jessica BichardIn this children’s charity office, the usual loafers Ben, the IT manager, Gail, the office supervisor and Angela, the chuggers manager, are idling their time away, concerned at the absence of the Max, the office manager. Max has been sacked for uselessness, and has been temporarily replaced by Sasha, who’s tasked with testing the rest of the team to find out precisely how good (or otherwise) they are at their jobs. Naturally paranoia takes over and it’s not long before their early trickery – like deliberately misdirecting Sasha so that she can’t find the HR department – leads on to more wilful disobedience. As things get more and more out of hand, it’s clear this is more than just a normal day at the office. But what will Sasha’s recommendation be – if she survives the day?

Liam FaikThis gifted little cast turn in a smashing performance in this very funny, quirky and surreal play, that sees the story retold from several different points of view – which means that each of the four characters acquire different characteristics and accents, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s performed at breakneck speed, with absolutely no time to pause for breath between individual scenes, so it builds to a tremendous crescendo; and you also appreciate how demanding it is for the cast to constantly switch in and out of character and voice.

Aoife SmythAll four actors create a perfect ensemble, with great trust and respect between each other, which gives you such confidence that they’re going to give you a great performance – and they do. Jessica Bichard tries to be the sensible voice of the team and acts as a kind of spirit level against which you can assess how bizarre everyone else is. Very effective Russian accent too! Liam Faik, as always, gives a fantastically strong performance, vainly milking the double entendres in his sexualised interview with Sasha, and either splendidly manipulative or manipulated in the office politics, depending on whose point of view you’re watching. Aoife Smyth gives Sasha a range of brilliant characteristics, from the kindly, helpful manager we all hope to get or strive to become, to the gangster channelling her inner Frank Butcher.

Helena FentonBut it’s Helena Fenton who steals the show for me, with her brilliant characterisation of the appalling Angela, the kind of person you really hope you don’t have to sit next to in the office. You know the kind; the type who speak their thoughts no matter how in appropriate; the type that invent irritating office rituals like Quiche O’Clock. Her down at heel voice, with hints of Julie Walters, crossed with James Acaster and a pinch of Jane Horrocks, sent shivers down my spine as I recognised in her a combination of people who used to report to me in my old civil service job. Particularly in her one-to-one meetings with Sasha, when she openly debated how seriously she was going to take the meeting – aargh! Painfully recognisable and devastatingly funny!

Well worth keeping an eye out for this company, as I know they are bringing this play to London in December, and I’m sure they’ll be doing some more great comedy plays in the future.

Review – Altered, Faux Pas Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 16th May 2016

AlteredThis fascinating play tells the true story of Beth Rutherford, a 19 year old girl suffering work related stress. Her father suggested she consulted a counsellor; but, for whatever reason, using hypnotic techniques, the counsellor implanted false memories in Beth’s brain. She managed to convince her – and Beth convinced the rest of the world – that her father had repeatedly abused her since childhood, had made her pregnant and then had carried out an abortion using a coat-hanger. Fortunately for the Rutherford family, history relates that the father was exonerated in the case; but the reality of what effect “bad therapy” can have on people provides a lasting topic for reflection long after curtain down.

The scene is set with some very familiar sound effects – hearing the Rutherford family make endless attempts to record their phone answering service greeting. We’ve all been there. It’s the sound of a happy family; giggling girls making a mess of it all, not taking it seriously, deliberately getting it wrong. It’s the sound of a normal family. That’s one of the reasons why, when it appears that Beth’s father has committed these awful acts, it all feels very shocking. The passing of time is noted by changing the letters on a scrabble board at the front of the stage. In fact, the scrabble pieces play a major part in the identity of the production – both the name of the play and the theatre company use this imagery – I guess because, like false memory syndrome – the scrabble tiles can be manipulated to create many different words and meanings.

Faux Pas TheatreThe play is structured round the sequence of meetings between Beth and her counsellor, interrupted by various other scenes that attempted to illustrate other examples of wider memory failure. Some of these other scenes relied heavily on a degree of flippancy that I felt was at odds with the main theme of the play. For me, rather than dovetailing nicely or cleverly highlighting underlying themes, they clashed and provided too great a juxtaposition between Beth’s troubled mind and total slapstick. I appreciate that they were well performed; they just still rather irritated me if I’m honest. The fish, in particular…. Let’s just say I was happy when the fish finally had his chips. I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a problem with me than with the performance.

One thing’s for absolute certain – it’s a stunner of a performance from Sophie-Rose Darby as Beth. There she sat, her eyes expressing that numb pain you have when you can’t join the links up in your brain to find a solution to whatever the problem is; undecided whether to find the counsellor’s attempts to draw her out constructive or intrusive. Her horror at her self-discovery at those terrible truths (that aren’t) locked away deep inside was very movingly portrayed. There’s a very difficult scene where she plays both sides of a confrontation between Beth and her father and she does it immaculately – unrushed, deliberate, superbly emotional. Her every line was spoken with complete conviction. At times she reminded me of Sheridan Smith. In common parlance, she nailed it.

Altered castOn the other end of those conversations, Megan Burda was also very convincing as the counsellor, with apparently no axe to grind and no ulterior motive behind the structure of her questions, but you start to raise eyebrows to yourself as she gently introduces suspicions and inaccurate imputations from Beth’s responses. Surely someone who appears this genuine couldn’t possibly be deliberately introducing poisonous thoughts…could they? The remaining cast members – Aoife Smyth, Ellen Shersby-Wignall and Lucy Kitson, gave excellent support in their sketches and routines; and the poem, which brings the show to a conclusion, was very telling and beautifully performed by everyone. Certainly a play that makes you think twice and tells its story compellingly; an appropriate choice for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Review – Days of Significance, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th March 2016

Days of SignificanceAnd so we come to the third and final of the University of Northampton’s Acting Course March season at the Royal and Derngate, and Roy Williams’ Days of Significance, which first saw the light of day at Stratford in 2007. After the strong productions of Welcome to Thebes and Blue Stockings, would this be a hat trick of excellence for the third year students? The answer is – so nearly, and that’s no fault of the actors themselves.

Aoife Smyth A bunch of drunk lads and a bunch of drunk girls clash and form alliances late at night whilst queueing to get into the club; among them are Ben, who has a relationship with Trish (although you’d not say either were monogamous) and Jamie, who is seen in a more romantic light, with Hannah. Ben and Jamie are shortly off to fight in Iraq; Ben full of bravado, the sensitive Jamie full of ill-concealed fear. The scene shifts to Iraq, and a hide-out where Ben and Jamie are holed up with two other men (ironically both played by women). Whilst Ben is making a video to send home to Trish, they are interrupted by a call to action; and the men then are suddenly plunged into the horrors of war. After the interval, we’re back in Blighty. Steve and Clare (from the drunk groups at the beginning) are getting married; Dan is Steve’s best man; Ben didn’t survive Iraq; and Jamie is back, but a changed and broken man. The usual drunken antics take place as if nothing ever happened; but Jamie is accused of some non-specific war crimes and is singled out for criticism and victimisation. He reveals that Ben also wasn’t as innocent as he has been painted. You hope (perhaps against expectation) that Steve and Clare will make a good life together; but as for the rest, their characters tainted with excess, betrayal, and worse, you feel it’s a very gloomy view of life in the future.

Penelope MayI really didn’t like the play at all. It’s full of unsympathetic characters, depicting many of the worse aspects of human nature; and whilst there is some humour in their yobbish behaviour, and you can certainly recognise traits of yourself and your loved ones in many of the characters, it’s strangely unrewarding to do so. This play doesn’t so much illuminate the human condition, it exposes it in all its raw awfulness and makes you want to turn your back on humanity and go and run a dog’s home. I know that street drunkenness and sexual promiscuity is daily reality for many young people today – to be honest, it was ever thus, to an extent – and I would admire any attempt to portray their lives, no matter how challenging or offensive it might feel to some people. However, I don’t think this play achieves that in a particularly constructive way. I felt it constantly allowed itself to lose focus; it’s as though it can’t decide who its protagonists are, so that it dips in and out of people’s lives, roots around to see what’s going on, but doesn’t really get to the heart of any of the problems or issues, before moving on and taking a superficial examination of someone else.

Jake RiversThis play (and/or production) also didn’t do the job of storytelling as clearly or succinctly as the other two in the season. There are a few Brechtian Verfremdungseffekten (I know, get me) that stop you from identifying with or fully appreciating the characters. The jeering, drunken behaviour in the first scene acts overwhelms you and creates a barrier to understanding the motivations and characteristics of the people involved. The opening part of the second scene, in Iraq, shows Ben and his mates larking about in front of the video camera but I personally found it very difficult to make out everything they said, so again the details that might help you form a bond with the characters were lost. Nothing more annoying in a play than not to be able to hear the words properly! The behaviour for which Jamie will go on trial after Iraq is deliberately obfuscated, so you rely on nuance and suggestion to understand precisely what went on. Some of the male characters are played by women, and no matter how talented those actors are, again it creates a falsehood about the whole presentation. One of these characters was required to dangle a prosthetic penis in front of the group of girls in a show of masculine derring-do, which actually just emphasised the artificiality of the situation. One wonders how they would have tackled the tackle if it had been a male actor in the role. All these aspects contributed towards a lack of understanding between the cast and the audience; as a result, the actors have an uphill task in projecting themselves to the audience, and sometimes that’s a big ask.

Elizabeth AdejimiThat said, there were some tremendous performances that really socked you in the face and demanded your attention. I really enjoyed Aoife Smyth as Trish; bold, attitudinal, fearless – she reminded me a little of what Catherine Tate’s Lauren would behave like in five years’ time. She delivered her character’s lines with immense relish and confidence, and although you’d mark her as a true survivor, she also conveyed the vulnerability that sits just below her surface – an excellent performance. I also thought Penelope May gave a great performance as Hannah, showing a refreshingly softer side as she dances with Jamie, whilst still able to give as good as she gets in arguments with the others. There’s a very uncomfortable scene towards the end of the play with Jake Rivers as Lenny, her step-father, where she runs riot with her sexual fantasies. I thought both actors took that difficult subject matter with terrific bravery and sensitivity too.

Daniel GrayElizabeth Adejimi was excellent as the drunk Clare at her wedding reception, beautifully picking her way through her words on a knife-edge of inebriation; and also as the Sergeant in the war scene, conveying the character’s show of bravado to keep the men’s spirits up whilst concealing his own deep terror and agony. Both Daniel Gray and Stuart Warren were on great form as Steve and Dan, especially, I felt, in the wedding scene (which was in fact by far the most dramatic and satisfying scene to watch). Both Sophie Guiver and Matilda Hunt rose to the challenge of taking on the male roles of Ben and Tony/Sean, and did a good job of nailing male characteristics and behaviour, but inevitably there was a sense of slight pantomime due to its lack of realism.

Stuart WarrenI truly admired the courage and commitment of the cast towards this difficult play – but I do feel it was a poor choice. I am no prude; I love to be challenged in the theatre. I love to come out of a play a different person from the one who went in. Throw all the invective and shock tactics at me that you can; shake me up and disturb me. Give me nightmares. Sadly, this play does none of those.