Review – Club Wonderland, University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2018

Club WonderlandI think it’s widely accepted that many children are horrid little so-and-so’s aren’t they? Why else would generations of them have been entranced, scared, perplexed and amused by Lewis Carroll’s eternally popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass? Most of those characters are right shockers. The Queen of Hearts with a beheading fetish. The Duchess who wants to hit children. The belligerent twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And Alice herself; a pompous, self-righteous little prig who talks down to others. What on earth is the appeal?

James GraysonIt must be due to the writing. Lewis Carroll is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his dual personality of the engaging writer of children’s fantasy and as Charles Dodgson, the Reverend intellectual of Christ Church Oxford. He was a pioneer of photography, and there is much debate to this day whether his interest in taking photographs of naked young girls was merely a matter of the time – when such photos were considered the epitome of innocence – or if there was a more devious intent lurking underneath. It’s very hard to come to a conclusion from our 21st century perspective.

Jemma BentleyErica Martin has written and directed this fascinating piece for the University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students. We were met by a white rabbit and taken in a group into the recesses of the theatre – a veritable warren indeed – to enter the world of Club Wonderland. The music is by Josh Bird and is fresh and tuneful and fully deserves a life after this show. With our sophisticated hostess in the shape of Dodo, assisted by more white rabbits than you could shake a stick at, we enjoyed a cabaret show, interrupted by the ominous and troubled presence of The Boss himself, Mr Carroll, who has lost his pen and therefore cannot develop his characters any further; which is why they are all trapped in the club.

Joe ConroyAll we can do is visit individual vignettes, where we become more acquainted with some of the characters who dwell in the books. We saw the creation of the Jabberwocky. We played Blackjack with the March Hare. We gave roses to the Queen of Hearts in her boudoir. We had card tricks and got drunk with Bill. And we took sides in the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (We were Team Dum). Moving around the hidden back passages of the R&D and discovering little side rooms is a fascinating exercise in intrigue in itself; we had a similar experience a few years ago with their Midsummer Bacchanalia. It really does add an extra dramatic frisson as you wonder where you’ll end up next.

Dean AdamsThis was a superb ensemble work, with everyone absolutely giving their all to make it work. The only people not to be involved in the ensemble aspect – and I felt rather sorry for then as a result – were the excellent James Grayson as Lewis Carroll, and Kalyn Chesney as Alice. I’ve seen Mr Grayson a few times now and he has the amazing ability to create magic out of any role. As Carroll he was menacing and ominous, yet also aloof and vulnerable as he gave us some insight into Carroll’s Modus Operandi. Ms Chesney’s Alice was clearly very fond of her mentor, which made for a slightly creepy but very effective partnership. Also on duty in the club you could find Freya Mawhinney as a very vivacious and stylish Dodo and Jemma Bentley as both a terrified and terrifying Mouse, both of whom helped play the very enjoyable card game with no rules with us.

Bobbie-Lee ScottIn the vignette scenes there was a brilliant performance from Bobbie-Lee Scott as the Queen of Hearts’ tart, anxious to please, scared of upsetting Her Majesty, and superbly interacting with the guests. Joe Conroy was also unnervingly excellent as the Mad March Hare, carrying on multi-layered conversations with himself whilst still hosting a blackjack tournament (must just say one thing, WHAT A CHEAT) and Dean Adams gave a great performance as Bill behind the bar, with a really effective magic trick and a sorrowful tale which required much alcoholic lubrication. Charlie-Dawn Sadler and Rhianne Brown were superb unwilling adversaries as the Tweedle-twins, in a lively scene that used The Walrus and the Carpenter to great effect. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite so excited by Daniel Peace’s scene as the fortune teller. Whether this was because it was the first of the vignettes that we saw, so we were less confident as an audience group of the format, or because the content wasn’t so interesting, I don’t know, because he created a very intriguing character; and certainly knows how to pierce you with a steely gaze, that’s for sure.

Very atmospheric, thought-provoking, and extremely well performed. Congratulations to all!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice, Graduates 2018 Showcase Programme, 14th February 2018

2018 ShowcaseI was delighted to receive an invitation to the Dress Rehearsal for this year’s London Showcase for the 2018 Graduates of the University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice course. Last year, when I saw the London Showcase, I had already seen the actors in a number of different roles from their appearances at the Royal and at the Flash Festival. This really helped assess the versatility of the performers, and I was surprised at the range some of them achieved. Because of a change in structure of the courses, I’ve only seen these 2018 Graduates in one previous production, Balm in Gilead. So this was just my second opportunity to see them show off their talents, hopefully to attract the attention of agents and managers and to give their careers a jolly good kickstart.

Joe ConroyMy friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind braved the icy cold to trek up to the Maidwell Hall to watch the cast of fourteen assemble a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, either short sketches or extracts from longer works. Some were extremely serious, giving the cast the opportunity to plumb the depths of aggression or bereavement, to create passionate and hard-hitting drama; others were light-hearted and funny, which brings a totally different strength and skillset to the Showcase. It’s human nature to identify with, and moreover like, someone on stage who makes you laugh; so when you’re trying to win the attention of professionals, whom you want to have on your side in the future, personally I think a good dollop of endearing humour can go a long way.

James GraysonThere were some stand-out sketches and performances for me that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought were superbly acted. The best of the more serious fare was a scene featuring James Grayson and Joe Conroy as two antagonistic attendees at a funeral, with Bobbie-Lee Scott caught between them as a grieving mother. All three gave powerful performances, spitting out the venom of their speeches with glee, but I particularly enjoyed Mr Grayson’s ability to convey controlled anger – every insult hit home, each word was deliciously enunciated. Ms Scott also appeared in a very enjoyable sketch with Amber Jade Harrison where she hilariously ridiculed Ms Harrison’s character’s previous choice of boyfriend, outrageously assassinating the poor off-stage chap whilst she herself was horrendously clad in a ghastly sparkly pink shell suit top. Her comic timing was perfect and, despite the brevity of the sketch, we had a very strong understanding of her character.

Dean AdamsAnother sketch that worked very well featured Dean Adams and Rhiannon Flambard loafing around in the great outdoors whilst he fantasises about being a duck. It’s an immensely silly but strangely touching little scene which both actors delivered perfectly; he stood out for his ability to convey the character’s quite childlike ideas, delivered completely straight-faced, which just made it even more funny. He was also excellent in a rather dark scene with Tiana Thompson, which begins with his amusing self-congratulation on how good a lover he had been the night before, but which gets creepier as you realise that his character probably committed rape. Ms Thompson, too, was very strong as his victim, carefully but powerlessly piecing together her recollections of the night and unable to conclude whether there’s anything she can do to put it right.

Bobbie-Lee ScottThere’s a delightfully cringey scene between a painfully awkward Ross Bayliss and a voluptuously forward Freya Mawhinney where she realises, post-party, that she accidentally went off with the wrong bloke; I really liked Mr Bayliss’s self-deprecating persona in both his scenes. Daniel Peace, James Grayson and Jemma Bentley all feature in a part hilarious, part harrowing scene where a menage a trois seems to have gone seriously wrong; and Mr Peace was also excellent in a two-hander (pardon the pun) where he asked Mr Conroy to inspect his undercarriage as he thought he had a lump down there. Both actors really conveyed the awkward humour of that situation superbly.

Jemma BentleyIf I were to be handing out awards for the best performers, then I would say James Grayson, Jemma Bentley, Bobbie-Lee Scott and Dean Adams would probably be jockeying for position with the best chances. But the great thing about this Showcase is that everyone gave a great account of themselves and the standard of performance was very high. The big event is at the Soho Theatre on Friday 16th February and I’m sure the whole group will deliver some outstanding performances!

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 Rhianne Brown as Rake and Adam Holmes as Martin were really convincing as hopeless-case junkies to whom your heart went out as they crashed through life. But for me the star performanceRhianne Brown 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!