Review – The Tempest, National Youth Theatre/Made in Northampton Co-Production, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2016

The TempestThere are comedies, and then again, there are comedies. The Tempest, I have always found, although a “comedy”, isn’t very funny. I’ve seen it a few times, read it, studied it, but whenever it looms on my horizon again I think to myself – oh yes. That play I don’t really get at all. Still, you never stop learning, so I’m always willing to give it another stab.

Ferdinand and MirandaA few weeks ago I remember telling someone there’s no point being a Shakespeare purist because you can always play them “straight” any time and they’ll still work. No modern production of a Shakespeare play is ever going to destroy the original; and the current interest in shaking up Shakey gives you a chance on a new perspective, uncovering some deeper themes, emphasising the plays’ relevance for today. And I stand by that. However, I have to admit that as I went into the interval of this brand new production of The Tempest, I found my tolerance for the shake-up was being severely tested. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it – far from it – but Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version is such a long way from the original, that it’s less of an adaptation and more of a serving suggestion. I was talking to another chap at the urinals during the interval (as you do, sometimes) and he said, “well, it may be the Tempest, but it’s not how I remember it”. I made understanding and conciliatory noises. “Mind you, that was sixty years ago” he added.

Miranda and CalibanAnd there’s the rub. In these tense times where the younger generation are accusing the old ‘uns of skewing the referendum result, there may be considerable differences between what the young and old want to see in the theatre. This definitely is a young person’s show, being a co-production between the National Youth Theatre and local performers with an association with the University of Northampton’s drama department and others. As we discovered in the Q&A session after the show (which Mrs Chrisparkle reluctantly stayed for and ended up thoroughly enjoying) there was a considerable degree of input from the cast in creating the adaptation, and it was constantly changing, even during previews, as they were trying to make it as relevant as possible to today’s situation. And I realised that, as I have seen more traditional productions of this play before which have always baffled me, this time, with liberties as long as your arm being taken, the play made much more sense. It’s a Child is Father to the Man moment. Wordsworth would have been so proud.

Simona and ArielThis adaptation sees much changing of relationships and sex. Male Prospero, Sebastian, Gonzalo and Stephano become female Prosper, Simona, Greta and Stephanie. Antonio becomes Anton; Prosper and Miranda are sisters (instead of father/daughter); Alonso and Ferdinand are brothers (instead of father/son). And there are six Ariels. Yes, six. Not so that Prosper can tune into Radio Luxembourg (and yes I know that ages me) but something obscure to do with Sycorax’s cruel treatment of the little sprite before the show starts. Actually the six Ariels work incredibly well. Not just because they can act as stage clearer-uppers, but because they can give the role more diversity and characterisation. There’s cheeky Ariel and sombre Ariel, happy Ariel and mysterious Ariel, and so on. It also enhances the sense of magic and sorcery that permeates the entire play. Everyone, whether spirit or not, is at Prosper’s beck and call – she completely rules the roost. This production highlights quite how manipulative the character is; it also brings forward Miranda’s resourcefulness – in this production she is able to subdue Caliban by physical strength and that’s no mean feat. Anton and Simona get a sexual frisson when planning to overthrow Alonso and Greta and take advantage of their victims’ temporary sleepiness to nip off stage for a quickie – very nicely done. I don’t suppose that ever happened with Antonio and Sebastian; but who knows?

Prosper and ArielVisually the production has tremendous impact. The massive tempest with which the play opens (or in this case, nearly opens, as it is dovetailed into scene two) is seen as a contained but nevertheless brutally wet affair, on the other side of the curtains of Prosper and Miranda’s bedroom. I have read other reports that say it’s visually stunning but you can’t hear a word that the cast are shouting to each other out there on that tossed boat. That is indeed true; fortunately, our performance was “audio described” which I personally always find extremely helpful – although it also makes it very clear when the cast go wrong and miss a chunk out of a scene (no names, no packdrill). The long and seemingly narrow set leading to a secret garden at the back worked extremely well; as did the three doors in a row that fell into place plunging us into instant imprisonment. The lighting too, is extraordinarily good, nowhere more so than in the chilling scene where Ariel (in his various guises) gets to vengeful grip with Alonso, Anton and Simona, spotlighting their individual tortures with gruesome starkness.

StephanieBringing this all to life is a fantastic young cast who work together as a brilliant ensemble but who also all have their individual moments to shine. Dominating proceedings is Sophie Walter as Prosper, manipulating all and sundry with a flick of her pencil; she has a fine air of authority and dignity which is perfect for the part and tellingly summons up all the character’s self-obsessed heroism. Beth Markey gives a great performance as her junior sidekick Miranda, apparently placid and obedient in love and respect, but becoming tough as old boots when dealing with Caliban. Charlie Clee is perfect casting for expressing Alonso’s outwardly noble demeanour mixed with his sense of anxiety and innate cowardice; Joe Law gives us a very wise and physically comic Trinculo and there’s a hilarious presentation of Stephanie by Sophie Guiver, who absolutely nails the drunk act as well as her besotted relationship with Caliban. Jay Mailer gets all the wry humour out of the character of Ferdinand, and Gabriel Akamo uses his fantastic stage presence to give us an imposing but quite sensitive Caliban, who’s not as monstrous as Shakespeare would like us to think. And hats off to the mix-and-match Ariel actors, who present him as harpy, gimp, society diva and workhorse. Mrs C thought the shiny silver-grey dresses the female Ariels wore reminded her of bridesmaids from one of the more cash-stretched episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride. I couldn’t possibly comment.

AntonThis highly enjoyable adaptation takes Shakespeare’s text by the throat and thrashes it around like a Dobermann puppy. Very original, full of life and attack, making the most of what humour there is and emphasising its relevance for today. Congratulations on an excellent production – and thank you for finally making me understand the play!

Review – Forever Looking Up, Illicit Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 17th May 2016

Forever Looking UpIf you thought the Mars One Project was a new way of calorie-controlling your chocolate intake, think again. It’s genuine – a project to establish a community of astronauts living on Mars. Crew One are scheduled to depart this earth in 2026, so if you want to volunteer, get your application form in now. Once you’re there though, there’s no way back, so the selection procedure for the best people is rightly arduous. Can you imagine what it would be like to go up to Mars in a rocket and know you will never come back?

That is the situation facing the characters in Illicit Theatre’s Forever Looking Up. They are the first group to head for Mars and have to come to terms with both the excitement of the mission and the tedium of being stuck in a rocket with people who you might not necessarily choose to spend the rest of eternity with. Whilst the Mars One project uniquely sets the scene, the issues facing our five heroes are largely the same that they might encounter in most closed communities. Apart from airlessness of course. And no gravity.

TrailerI loved the opening with its introductory video, allowing us to meet the five astronauts separately as they were interviewed for the camera. In just a few minutes you gained subtle insights into their characters that prepared you for their real life presentation on the stage shortly afterwards. I would say this particular footage was the finest use of video in any of these Flash Festival productions due to its originality and relevance. The next sequence in the show was almost contemporary dance in its format – with movements that suggested need and support, the confinement of individual thought and activity into enforced togetherness, and the emotional strains that the closed community would suffer because of their restrictions. I thought it was very well performed and I would have been happy to see more of it!

However, that would mean eating away at the time for the “scripted play” element of the piece, which would have been a shame. Once the astronauts’ responsibilities, characteristics and the basic plot have been established, it concentrates on two relationships between two people, and their repercussions on the wider group. Firstly: the blossoming love between Lily and Kaseem, which is against all the rules. The others snitching on them, telling the bosses that they’ve been kissing, felt like some kind of underhand sneak behaviour at school. I thought that was very sharply done. Second: the friendship between Zoe and Jessica, which builds well with Jessica showing pastoral care for Zoe’s troubled past – did she kill her mother? I think she may have. But Zoe misinterprets Jessica’s friendship for something more, and when Jessica reacts, horrified, at Zoe’s misplaced gaydar, the concord of the group is lost forever. Harvey’s solution to the Zoe/Jessica issue is final – although I understand in subsequent performances it might not be quite so clear cut!

Illicit TheatreIt’s a very engrossing and gripping observation of a closed community imploding. I really liked the oppressive sense of a Big Brother somewhere out there, watching their every move, sounding his alarm whenever they went off piste. Technically, on the performance I saw, the backing music was too loud for the voices to carry sufficiently during those sotto voce private conversations. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed all the performances. The stage loves Sharni Tapako-Brown and she stood out like a beacon of brilliance in all her scenes. Even just in the diary scenes, when she’s not interacting with anyone else, she made the words come alive. And her conflicts of emotion with Zoe were stunning. Talking of whom, Sophie Guiver invested Zoe with a really strong personality, enigmatic with her past and the reasons why she left earth; and calculatingly vindictive after the misunderstanding with Jessica. She has a great stage presence and very confident delivery and I really enjoyed her performance.

As the senior chap on board, Charlie Clee’s Harvey quickly reveals himself to be much more fragile a person than you would like to be in charge. Awkward, nervous, and lacking in the personal charisma to be the authoritative figure that you would need to be at the helm, I thought Mr Clee did a great job in conveying those personal limitations and failures in what must have been a very hard role to grasp. Normally he doth bestride the stage like a Colossus, so it was riveting to see him portray so different a character. Vandreas Marc and Yolanda Lake made Kaseem and Lily into a very believable couple who start to come together and then start to fall apart. They were also particularly graceful in the movement sequences.

Forever Looking Up castAn absolutely fascinating piece that takes common themes of everyday life and projects them up into space, providing the added stress that the Mars One mission would definitely place on relationships. Intriguing and thought-provoking, and beautifully acted throughout. Congratulations to all concerned!

P. S. My spelling and grammar nerves were jagged by the time I’d read some of the company’s promotional material. I’ve honestly never seen so many mistakes on the printed page! I wouldn’t mention it but it’s a real bugbear of mine. Next time guys, get a good proof-reader. I don’t mind doing it for you!

Review – Welcome to Thebes, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2016

Welcome to ThebesSo this is a new experiment for me. Outside of all the professional productions we see at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, we’ve also seen work by the Actors’ Company, the Young Company and the Youth Theatre. However, following the leads of Messrs Smallmind and Mudbeast, this March I’ve booked to see all three plays in the University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting season, performed by final year acting students. I genuinely had no idea what the standard would be like. Mrs Chrisparkle frequently shudders at the words “Amateur” and “Dramatics” when put together in the same sentence, and to protect her for her own good I thought I’d go it alone with these three plays by seeing them as midweek matinees by myself. Well, if Welcome to Thebes is an indication of what this little Trinity of drama is all about, she’s missed out on a treat.

Sharni Tapako-BrownMoira Buffini’s play which opened at the National Theatre in 2010 is quite a complicated affair. It takes characters and plots from early Greek tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides and shakes them up into a modern fable about fragile democracy emerging from the ruins of a bloody civil war. There’s also an examination of the relationship between the home state – Thebes – and its powerful neighbour Athens. Thebes’ President Elect Eurydice and Athens’ “First Citizen” Theseus meet for a summit, but Eurydice has strong political opponents in the form of war criminal Prince Tydeus and his lover Pargeia, who are happy to whip up civil unrest to unsettle the fledgling democracy and overthrow the new President. When one of Theseus’ aides shoots one of the Theban soldiers, it’s a cue for more subterfuge and the breakdown of the relations between the two city states. And that’s only part of it.

Charlie CleeIt’s a meaty play; although I will admit I felt a lull in the story halfway through the first act, but the more unrest there is on stage, the more interesting the play becomes. The cast work terrifically together as an ensemble, and the scenes where the stage is filled with characters all interacting together, providing a sense of anarchy or danger, are most effective. The first act is considerably longer than the second; and at one stage a number of us in the audience wondered whether or not the interval was actually the end of the play. It wasn’t – so be warned, don’t leave too early! I really enjoyed how the production uses all parts of the Royal auditorium, from its surprise and challenging start, through to using not only the stage and the front apron, but the boxes and various parts of the Stalls too.

Kathryn McKerrowHowever, I guess when a play is performed by third year acting students, the most important thing is – how was the acting? Well, if you hadn’t told me it was performed by students I would never have guessed – apart, perhaps, from the fact that all the actors are relatively young. On the strength of this performance, I’d say that almost every member of the cast could easily find their feet in any professional acting company. The overall standard was amazingly high, much more impressive than I could have expected or hoped for. If I was to pick out the “best” people from the cast of 18, I’d probably have to give you a list of 14 actors – and that would be both boring and unfair, so I’m not going to do that!

Megan BurdaHowever, I’ve got to point out some of those amazing young actors. Let’s start with President Eurydice – a strong, authoritative performance from Sharni Tapako-Brown. She absolutely looks the part: dignified, resolute, no-nonsense; when she was proclaiming from the box she put me in mind of Evita Peron. Technically, I loved the clarity and audibility of her speech; she’s one of those actors who’s simply a joy to watch. As her political opponent, Charlie Clee as Prince Tydeus owns the stage with a perfect combination of swagger and thuggery, mocking and cajoling us to support him, getting a weird thrill out of others’ misfortunes, yet portraying surprising vulnerability and panic when things don’t go his way. Technically first class, and revealing the great depth of his character – he’s definitely One To Watch in the future. As his partner in crime, Pargeia, Kathryn McKerrow turns in a fine performance of quiet domination and ruthlessness – you’d surely not want to cross her. Moreover, she delivers one of the most ferocious slaps in the face I’ve ever seen on stage! I hope Stage Management have a poultice handy.

Suzannah CasselsMegan Burda is hardly off stage, doubled over in what must be a physically challenging performance as the all-seeing blind Tiresias, portentously issuing her warnings and nicely irritating the figures of authority. Again, I really appreciated her vocal clarity; her put-down line to Talthybia, a quirkily amusing portrayal by Ciara Goldsberry, was probably worth the ticket price alone. Vandreas Marc has great stage presence and bearing, and splendidly conveyed the arrogance of Theseus. Suzannah Cassels was a very affecting Antigone, a performance of true sincerity and dignity, and Amber Mae a supportive and charming Ismene, very emotional in her realisation that she has lost out on the marriage stakes to the hapless Haemon, a deftly underplayed performance by Benjamin Williams – who made the words “I’m not blind” sound very funny indeed.

Madeleine Hagerty There are also very hearty and spirited performances from Madeleine Hagerty and Daniel Gray as the two young soldiers Megaera and Scud, appropriately scaring the sh*t out of us at the start of the play; I loved Ms Hagerty’s portrayal of vengeance at the end of the play too. I enjoyed the all-female senate, especially the performance of Caroline Avis as Thalia; Neizan Fernandez Birchwood gave great support as the wronged Polykleitos, and Kieran Hansell played Phaeax in a delightfully believable state of near-tantrum. But everyone in the cast gave a very good performance, with a great feel for both the ensemble scenes and their characters’ individual times to shine. Also – great work with the stage blood; effective and slightly shocking without going over the top.

Congratulations one and all on a superb performance. Can’t wait to see the other plays now!