Review – Confiding in Frank, Pop Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 1st April 2019

Flash FestivalI now know why they call it the Flash Festival – because, quick as a flash, it comes around again! This will be the fourth year that I have the privilege to see the 3rd Year Acting Students at Northampton University perform their dissertation pieces, and I am looking forward to it very much! Like last year, there are twelve shows on offer for 2019, and the plan is that Mr Smallmind and I will get to see all of them. Whether I get them all reviewed during the week of the festival is a matter of extreme doubt!

Confiding in FrankThe first show was Confiding in Frank, performed by Pop Theatre, in that comfortable big acting space upstairs at Castle Hill. In a tentative love story with a difference, Star Wars and DC comic nerd Gary and wannabe fashionista Chloe find themselves flat-sharing. After a bumpy start Chloe starts to warm to him and Gary realises that he’s finally within touching distance of a girl! But how to win her over, that’s the question. Enter Frank, the third “person” in the flat-share – and does his wise-cracking advice help or hinder? You’ll have to see it to find out!

Charlie MackenzieWritten by and starring Charlie Mackenzie and Melissa Knott, this is a very funny, quirky and surreal little play that treads a fine line between the recognisably real and the utterly preposterous. Mr Mackenzie’s Gary is a child in an adult’s body, and he amusingly conveys his wacky virgin insecurities and his inability to do the right thing at the right time – for example, settling down for a cosy night for two on the sofa shouldn’t be marred by ecstatic couch-conducting the Star Wars Theme. I wondered at one stage whether Mr Mackenzie’s characterisation of Gary was a tad on the frenetic side and maybe not quite realistic enough; but then I remembered he was talking to a fish, so realism flies out the window anyway.

Melissa KnottMelissa Knott plays Chloe as a frazzled, easily weirded-out, world-weary kind of girl, who’s looking for kindness and understanding – but instead gets a Games Workshop Luke Skywalker. She’s at her happiest when contemplating her career development, rather than coping with an over-exuberant IT oaf who knows nothing of the etiquette of romance. Both performances lean slightly more towards caricature than characterisation, but that’s not inappropriate for the subject matter. Backstage Elliot Murray provides the voice of the streetwise and sarcastic Frank, who has most of the best lines, including the most suggestive activity deriving from a Box of Heroes sweets that I’ve ever heard. Frank is perhaps a distant cousin of Little Shop of Horrors‘ Audrey II, and gives us lots of laugh out loud moments.

FrankTechnically there were a couple of minor hitches – Mr Mackenzie’s light sabre fell apart and thwacked Mr Smallmind on the knee (he won’t sue) and in Gary’s relentless enthusiasm for physical recklessness, Mr Mackenzie knocked over a tub of fish food which stayed there, ominously, throughout the performance. However, the cast remained completely unfazed by these issues, so top marks to them.

Spoiler alert, but it’s not a happy ever after ending for our two lovebirds; and I found myself surprisingly moved and disappointed by that. After all the effort he makes, you would have thought Gary could have had some reward on Valentine’s night!

An enjoyably bizarre 45 minutes – congratulations to all involved!

Review – Trial, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 1st February 2019

TrialWhen I first heard that the Final Year Acting Students were going to present a devised adaptation of Kafka’s First World War novel The Trial, I was excited by the prospect of seeing a bold and ambitious piece of work. I remember reading it at school and discovering it was an unsettling, murky book; I didn’t like it (I’m sure I didn’t understand it either) but there’s something about it that makes you carry on reading. It leads you down one path only to show you that there’s nothing there after all and that all the action’s down another path. And once you get down the second path, you wonder what it all meant. In a word – Kafkaesque.

Charlie MackenzieSo the medium of an immersive, promenade performance works perfectly for this story, leading the audience up to one part of the acting space to share in one scene, only to then move to another part for the story to continue. In the end, we’re all in a huge circle with the actors enveloped by us, like one massive Ring – a – Ring – a – Roses, and indeed, they do all fall down dead.

Moses GaleBefore that, there is the usual mix of danger and discomfort that is often an element of an immersive show. Even before you enter the studio, an armed, balaclava’d soldier stands at the door, so you sneak past hoping not to make eye contact only to be bellowed at by another soldier for trying to walk in the wrong direction. When you’re not seated in rows but instead are walking around the acting space aimlessly, waiting for the play to begin, it’s surprisingly isolating. Add to the fact that you are required to wear a mask, and that the lighting is turned down very low, you do feel very vulnerable. So when a soldier bellows at you to “f***ing move”, it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s all part of that dangerous sense of tension and conflict, which the ensemble convey superbly well.

Michael GukasThe programme notes tell us that, rather than being a formal staging of the novel, this adaptation takes the concept of Trial and applies it to the problems faced by young people today; whilst still keeping many of Kafka’s original characters. The protagonist, Joseph K, is played by six actors; and why not? Like Walt Whitman, K contradicts himself; he is large, he contains multitudes. We first see the six of them, inextricably linked, asleep on the floor, slowly waking up in sequence as though in slow shutter speed movement; only to be disturbed by the arresting officers, when they fracture into their six identities and are never reunited again.

Amber KingIt’s a very loose adaptation. I’m sure Donald Trump and Chubby Checker don’t appear in the original – but that’s not to say they wouldn’t if Kafka had heard of them! Characters come together, argue, kiss, have sex and move on with no sense of commitment. A fatuous judge is borne aloft on stage to tell us that she is a judge and everyone else is dead impressed. Some scenes from the book are closely recognisable – like the scene with the court clerk, or in the church with the priest; others are not. Gracious hosts welcome us all to a party with a variety of dance numbers that we can join in with if we wish. I would be lying if I said I understood the relevance of every scene, but it was all done with compelling commitment.

Tonia ToselandIt’s very hard to identify individual performers from this strong ensemble because they’re all part of the jigsaw; if one were to go missing, so to speak, it would disrupt the whole picture. However, I was very impressed with how Charlie Mackenzie swung from sadistic guard to charming party host, Moses Gale’s unctuously threatening priest, and all the members of the whispering mob who chattered behind the judge’s back.

Chris CutlerI love challenging theatre, and I love immersive theatre; so, this production wins on both fronts. At fifty minutes this is perfect fringe festival material and gives you loads to think and talk about on the way home. Great stuff!

Abi CameronP. S. I decided to let myself go during the dance scene. I shared a beautiful moment with Michael Gukas, singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever like two drunken sots; only then to ruin it with my disgraceful, dad dancing rendition of Night Fever. Sorry about that. Don’t have nightmares.