Review – Do I Love You? John Godber Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2023

Do I Love YouJohn Godber’s Do I Love You?, currently touring until early next year, is primarily a love letter to Northern Soul. Confession time: I don’t know much (anything, really) about Northern Soul. I can’t say it ever permeated to the Chiltern village where I was brought up. I knew Skiing in the Snow by Wigan’s Ovation and Footsee by Wigan’s Chosen Few, but that’s it; unless you count The Goodies’ Black Pudding Bertha (she’s the queen of Northern Soul) – but I don’t think you can. It’s a musical subculture that is clearly deeply loved, and maybe its general secretiveness is a major part of its appeal. Certainly, the very full audience at the Royal last night was packed with Northern Soul admirers who swung along to the various tracks that are scattered through the show.

DILYIt’s a deceptively simple play; three twenty-somethings who all grew up together in Hull find their chosen career paths halted by Covid and end up all working at the same fast food drive-through. Sally and Kyle have been besties since playschool, and Nat joined them not much later. One night, they chanced upon a club – the Beachcomber – Cleethorpes for an all-nighter of Northern Soul music, only £3 to get in, where they were amazed to find they were the youngest people there. In a beautiful realisation of the arrogance of youth, they ask themselves how the heck did all these old people learn these dance routines? Their aim is to take their Northern Soul dance act to the Tower Ballroom Blackpool, but only if Sally thinks they’re good enough; it’s as though she’s her own Craig Revel-Horwood. I had no idea that Northern Soul had its own dance style by the way, apparently a kind of sliding gliding that relies on talc and balance.

DILYAt the interval, I was feeling this was a modest, underachieving little play. It has a very in-house feel about it, being the John Godber Company production of a John Godber play, directed by John Godber and with John Godber’s daughter among the cast of three. Rather than using a Paul Mathew style pantechnicon, you can imagine them transporting the set and props from venue to venue using a local man with a van. There was no programme – at least not at last night’s performance – so I can’t name and shame whoever was responsible for the totally inadequate lighting, with members of the cast performing in shadow during some scenes.

I was also underwhelmed by the script which I found repetitive, rather dull and lacking that usual John Godber wit. There should be a legal limit on the number of times the phrase do you want fries with that can be repeated in a play. Yes, we get the drift that it’s designed to show that their jobs were repetitive and dull but is it fair to subject the audience to the same level of repetition with such diligence?!

DILYHowever, the scene just before the interval started to show some promise. Our trio have discovered the Cleethorpes club and have felt its vigour and emotion coursing through their veins for the first time. And it was also the first time that the characters truly came to life. And after the interval, the drive and power of the play continued to burst through the writing. Despite the rather heavy-handed speech by an old-timer (67 years old) at the club about the tradition, heritage, and true meaning of Northern Soul, you begin to realise that this is a celebration of the purity of one’s art. Sally is caught up in an artistic stasis – she can’t dance to it, she can’t sing along, all she can do is watch in awe at the effect the music has on her and others. She realises this thing is bigger than any of them.

DILYThe play also takes on other social issues; not only the devastation caused by Covid, but the general austerity and lack of opportunity in the north that determines one’s complete lifetime. It highlights a problem that’s rarely considered – what happens when a younger person lives with an older person as their carer, and then they die. In an affluent society that means they inherit the property. But in Sally’s world that renders you homeless.

DILYThe three likeable young actors are all superb in their roles and work together as a brilliant ensemble. Chloe Mcdonald accurately portrays Nat, that character who is the third member of a group of three, knowing she can never quite achieve the same bond as the other two. Emilio Encinoso-Gil has an excellent sense for the comedy in some of the best lines as wannabe musical theatre performer Kyle, whose lofty ambitions led to two years dressed as a crocodile. But it is Martha Godber’s Sally who is the lynchpin, and through whom we see the progress of the trio; funny, bossy, caring but also at times completely unreasonable, she gives a terrific performance of a very credible and well-rounded personality.

DILYI was at times reminded of the Victoria Wood sketch where Jim Broadbent is the long-suffering playwright who lives and breathes the pain and misery of the north and is motivated to create his epics to reflect the douleur of the dockers, the railway workers and the steel workers – but lives comfortably in Chiswick. I’m not saying Mr Godber is that person, but the play does have a huge I love the north and all its pain atmosphere about it. Its romanticised and sentimental view of the affection for Northern Soul and its roots is both its strength and its weakness. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they missed a trick by not including a whippet. Clearly she has no heart.

The Northampton audience – mainly made up of people of a certain age who could easily have been at that Cleethorpes club – absolutely loved it. If you’re an aficionado of Northern Soul, you will too. As for the rest of us, there is plenty to admire, but also a little to be cynical about.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Murder in the Dark, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2023

Murder in the DarkIt’s a big Hurrah! from me for the return of live entertainment to the Royal and Derngate, ever since it was discovered that they were one of those theatres with aerated concrete (also known as The RAAC Pack), and have thus been closed since the beginning of September. The Derngate is due to open on the 24th for NMTC’s Kinky Boots; no word as yet on the Underground, but my fingers remain crossed. But the delightful old Royal theatre reopened last night with Original Theatre’s touring production of Torben Betts’ Murder in the Dark. Congratulations to the R&D for opening the building sufficiently to allow the Royal to be used; they’re temporarily using the old upstairs Crown bar, so my advice if you want a drink too is not to arrive too late as it does make the whole process a little bit slower. But it’s a spectacular achievement to get the place open and functional under such difficult circumstances, and all the front of house were welcoming and helpful as always.

SetMurder in the Dark? Would that be a party game, where you have to work out who killed what over drinks and canapés? Or perhaps a whodunit, where the lights go out, there’s a scream, and when they turn them back on, Doctor X has killed Professor Thingy with the lead piping. As it turns out, neither. Torben Betts has created a comedy thriller-cum-horror-cum-ghost-cum-what the hell is going on here kind of show. Danny, once a successful pop star, now down on his uppers, and his girlfriend Sarah have arrived at Mrs Bateman’s exceedingly remote farm. Unintentionally, that is; it’s New Year’s Eve and he’s had an accident in the car – probably had too much to drink – and she’s kindly going to put them up for the night. His brother, son and ex-wife are also with them. There’s clearly a problem with the fuse box, as the electricity keeps coming on and going off. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot – you have to come and see it for yourself to discover what happens next!

DinnerThe cast are uniformly excellent, with a terrific central performance from Tom Chambers as Danny, a perpetually tormented soul who’s afraid of the dark, afraid of the farm dog – in fact, he’s afraid of almost everything. He’s matched by a funny and frequently scary performance from Susie Blake as Mrs Bateman, a character who ought to be a simple, kindly old lady – but you wouldn’t trust her an inch. There’s a strong performance from Jonny Green as Danny’s son Jake, bitterly resentful of being ignored by his father all through his childhood. Laura White is excellent as Sarah, also ignored by Danny and desperate for WiFi, Owen Oakeshott is great as Danny’s angry but loving brother William and Rebecca Charles is also very good as ex-wife Rebecca, full of commonsense and practicality, and keeping her own secrets to herself.

Danny and SarahThere’s a request in the programme that audiences keep the secrets of the story to themselves so that future audiences can enjoy the show. Absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that. It’s also a blessing; because if you were to ask me what the secrets of the story are, I’m not sure I could tell you with any true conviction — there are so many! It’s a complex set-up, and the complexities don’t get fully revealed until the last few minutes, so that’s hugely rewarding. I’m not 100% convinced that every single aspect of the story tallies up; in fact, I’m sure they don’t. But it’s an almost unique aspect of this play that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all make sense – it’s almost a desirable bonus!

DannyWhat does matter is that it’s an exciting, suspenseful story, with huge dollops of spookiness, presented on an eerie set, with scary sound and light effects, and some nice comic touches. It’s also completely unpredictable; when you think you’ve got it sussed, something else happens to prove you wrong, so it’s a constant guessing game where the author is always at least one step ahead of the audience. I also enjoyed a couple of obvious nods to at least two other plays, both of which will visit the Derngate auditorium early next year – I’ll say no more. Murder in the Dark plays at the Royal until Saturday 21st October and then continues its tour to High Wycombe, Birmingham, Derby, Salford, Southend, Cambridge, Malvern, Cardiff, Cheltenham, New Brighton, Richmond and Glasgow.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Sinfonia Viva, Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, “Eroica”, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th July 2023

Sinfonia Viva - BeethovenIt’s a huge welcome to the Sinfonia Viva for their first classical concert at the Royal and Derngate – at least, I think it’s their first visit to the R&D, the orchestra was founded in 1982 but I confess I’d never heard from them before. And that’s to my discredit, as they’re a funky group of musicians who pack a punch with their showmanship. I’m not quite sure if all 38 of them were on the stage of the Derngate auditorium on Friday night, but they certainly gave a performance of power and passion.

Delyana LazarovaLed by enthusiastic first violinist Peter Liang, whose energy and commitment clearly influences the entire orchestra, our conductor for the performance was Delyana Lazarova, born in Bulgaria, but most recently based in Manchester where she has been working with the Hallé Orchestra. She brings determination and style to the podium, and gets the best out of the orchestra with some occasionally very artistic hand gestures.

The curtain-raiser piece in the programme was the Overture to L’ Amant Anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges. L’ Amant Anonyme is the only one of Saint-Georges’ six operas to survive complete. I’d never heard of it, nor him; and if this work is also new to you, gentle reader, that’s perhaps no surprise as the first commercial recording of the piece was only released earlier this year. However, it’s a terrific piece of music, and I think I shall be hunting down that recording for my own collection! In three brief movements, it starts off as though it’s something you recognise, but then it takes unexpected turns, definitely going its own way, and it reminded me of what Bach’s seventh Brandenburg Concerto – if there were one – would sound like. Full of attack and verve and hugely entertaining.

Ariel LanyiOur second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor, K466, with our soloist for the evening, Jerusalem-born Ariel Lanyi. At the age of 25, he clearly has musical maturity and professionalism way beyond his years. The concerto is a much-loved work, and Mr Lanyi and the orchestra played with first movement with straightforward clarity and precision. But it was with the second movement that I really felt the performance took off, as I melted away to the romantic melodies and pure emotion of the piece. Mr Lanyi incorporated a terrific cadenza in the final movement and it all ended with upbeat sweetness and light. The woman seated in front of me gasped an audible wow once it was over. Great stuff.

Sinfonia Viva orchestraAfter the interval Ms Lazarova introduced the main item of the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E flat, “Eroica”, Op 55. She explained the four movements as 1) the trials and tribulations of life, 2) a funeral, 3) rebirth, and 4) celebration, and I found that a very helpful guide to the work. I also enjoyed her comment that talking about music is like dancing about architecture – a good cue to get going! It was a powerful performance all the way through, vivid and exciting, but superbly controlled through the second movement and exhilarating at the end.

I do hope that the Sinfonia Viva decide to include the Royal and Derngate in their future schedules! They are a terrific addition to the theatre’s programming.

Review – Happy Birthday Sunita, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th July 2023

Happy Birthday SunitaThe trouble with a title like Happy Birthday Sunita is that it can give you all sorts of false expectations. Is this going to be something frothy and light, like a stage version of The Kumars at No 42? Or something punchier, maybe a Punjabi Abigail’s Party? Decades ago I saw a play called Happy Birthday by Marc Camoletti, with a plot description that sounded racy but in fact was one of the mildest, generic pieces of writing I can recall. So, I must tell you, gentle reader, that I assumed that Happy Birthday Sunita would be something similarly bland.

Happy birthdayBut, as you know, assume makes an ass out of u and me, and I am delighted to report that this is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and prejudice-challenging little nugget of drama. It is a little nugget though, coming in at barely over 1 hour 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval. I am a massive supporter of having an interval if possible, despite the current trend to perform shows all the way through without a break; but I was perhaps surprised that it wasn’t shown as a one-act play.

Tejpal in her kitchenIt’s Sunita’s 40th birthday, and her mum, brother and sister in law have come to celebrate with her. Dad is out in India, and has been for some years, but Sunita is convinced he will return for a surprise visit on this auspicious occasion. It’s also an opportunity for her mum, Tejpal, to show off her beautiful, brand spanking new kitchen. Sunita doesn’t want this party, so she skulks upstairs whilst the others make the preparations. Nav, her brother, has forgotten to collect the special eggless birthday cake from the shop, much to Tejpal’s annoyance – but she makes a phone call and says that everything will be sorted. They’re just about to sit down for dinner when a surprise guest arrives – kitchen-fitter Maurice. What’s he doing there? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Party tableBeautifully written and structured by Harvey Virdi, and crisply directed by Pravesh Kumar, from a quiet start the play builds to a rich crescendo, reminiscent of an Indian Ayckbourn, with its subtle digs at family relationships and surprising domestic outcomes. Nav’s wife Harleen finds it difficult to integrate with her husband’s family, no matter how enthusiastic she tries to come across; although the two met at a Sikh disco at university, their differing backgrounds and interests form a barrier between them. This is nicely contrasted with the other “outsider”, Maurice, an east London geezer made good, whose background Nav challenges with allegations of a racist past; but it turns out that Maurice can speak Punjabi better than Harleen.

Prosecco timeThere are some amusing nods to racial stereotypes; what appears to the Brits as garish taste, with the multicolour lighting in the kitchen akin to an Indian restaurant, the picture of the guru on the wall that lights up and plays an irritating tune every so often to remind you to give him a blessing, and the fact that the beautiful new kitchen is primarily for show and the old kitchen has been rebuilt at the back for continued general use. You lot do love your extensions! claims Maurice, with a mixture of latent racism and appreciation of the profit it gives him. And 40 year old, unmarried Sunita is a picture of barely-suppressed resentment at having been forbidden to go to university because she was just meant to become a stay-at-home wife and mum. She is jealous of the opportunities that both Nav and Harleen had by being able to go off and find their own path.

Dance timeAnd if there is a lesson (terrible word) to be learned from the play it’s how vital it is for everyone to be who and what they want to be; to choose education, or to choose to be in a relationship, to choose whether to have children, or to choose to abandon religious conventions. Everyone learns; and by the end of the play, all the characters have moved on, with greater self-awareness, and all in a better place. It’s a really optimistic piece of writing!

Harleen and TejpalEach member of the cast puts in a terrific performance. Divya Seth Shah is excellent as Tejpal, the dominant matriarch who wants the best for everyone, always giving the same little shriek if her prosecco is topped up too high, cringing at Harleen’s overenthusiastic hugs, but not above having her own agenda when it suits her. I really enjoyed Rameet Rauli’s performance as Harleen, fashion-conscious (unlike the rest of the family), image-conscious, and health-conscious, but only if it’s part of her image. She superbly conveys that slight awkwardness of being part of a family that doesn’t really accept her – and that she’s not always sure she wants to accept them back.

SunitaBhawna Bhawsar portrays Sunita as a character who has lost her spark; revelling in the hope that her father still loves her, she struggles to find her own identity. You sense that Sunita truly has some mental health issues and she’s on the cusp of something serious if she’s not careful. Devesh Kishore’s Nav is a smart presentation of someone who primarily looks after himself, the son who was always considered top dog in the family; and Keiron Crook is excellent as Maurice, the catalyst for change, storming in where angels fear to tread, and creating an entertainingly culturally different element for the family to cope with.

Harleen and SunitaProduced by the Rifco Theatre Company, the show is halfway through its tour and after it’s completed its week at Northampton, travels on to Leeds, Warwick, Ipswich and Peterborough. Funny, sad and challenging, it’s a production full of heart and gives you a lot to talk about on the way home. What a waste of a beautiful birthday cake though. Eggless too!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Who Cares 2032 – an interactive digital experience co-produced by the Royal and Derngate Northampton, Hydrocracker and Deafconnect – 1st June 2023

Who Cares 2032The time is 2032; nine years into the future – that’s not that far away. The NHS has remained starved of resources so that it is teetering on the brink of non-existence. Care workers have left the profession in their droves due to poor wages and conditions – there’s just not enough bitcoin to go around. But the government has come up with a potentially smart solution – the Contact App. Is it the cure-all for saving lives in an even worse case scenario than we’re currently facing – or is it an unethical intrusion that marketizes the care industry?

MishJem Wall and Nathan Crossan-Smith have devised this new, challenging and interactive experience, which you can watch and engage with from the privacy of your own laptop. Remember Casper the Friendly Ghost? Who Cares 2032 features another very friendly ghost, Doctor Anna, who loves nothing more than a spot of digital haunting and putting you in control of the future of the nation’s healthcare. She gatecrashes our online lecture to make us face a very important choice. If we want to, we can corrupt the code that will create the Contact App, thus taking it out of society for ever; or, we can let history takes its course and allow it to be introduced. Obviously, that’s a decision that none of us can take lightly, and over the course of a little over an hour Doctor Anna poses some difficult ethical and moral questions for us, and, try as we might, there’s no sitting on the fence with this one.

Mish and GrahamWe’re already used to the concept of having medical appointments over the Internet – for the most part, it’s quicker, easier, and can provide a good back-up service to the general public. So what’s the problem with the Contact App, surely it’s just the natural next stage of development? That’s certainly the attitude of young, deaf, Mish, who finds using it is her primary access to health provision and also allows her to keep tabs on her general health and wellbeing on a regular basis. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with middle-aged Graham in Joe’s Café and encourages him to sign up to the App too. But Graham is from a less technologically trusting era, and insists he doesn’t need the intervention of an interfering and nosy wristband telling him what to do. Are you like Mish, or are you like Graham? As we discover more and more about the App, its benefits and its deficiencies become clearer. How will you respond when Anna finally gets you to nail your colours to the mast?

MishThis is a very entertaining, challenging and intense piece of interactive drama. You have to concentrate hard on what’s going on, as sometimes Anna will put a question to you that demands some time to reflect over. There are no hard and fast easy answers here – but there a lot of soft and slow difficult ones! It’s an invigorating blend of rigorous intellectual stimulation and genuine emotional response, and I found myself quite moved by some of the situations and people to whom we are introduced. At one stage, you can pick and choose to listen to the experiences of a number of people – carers, a teacher, a student, family members; each bearing first-hand witness to the problems of providing healthcare in 2032. Give yourself time to consider the evidence of their lives; you might find, like I did, that during the experience you change your mind.

Graham and MishIt’s very smartly written, with several amusing local references, and a few off-guard moments from Anna that had me snorting with laughter. Faith Omole provides the voice of Anna, and she really gets into your psyche; before long you find yourself telling her all sorts of private things that you wouldn’t normally tell anyone – but rest assured, what happens between you and Anna stays with you and Anna. One exception to this – you can choose to publish your reasoning for either allowing the App to go ahead or nipping it in the bud on a legacy wall; entirely your decision. Jude Akuwudike voices Oladipo, a diabetes nurse, who can only see the benefits provided by the App. Rhiannon May plays Mish with a nice balance of Generation Alpha cynicism and respect for the older Graham’s concerns and feelings, if not his choice of breakfasts; and co-creator Jem Wall plays the decent but backward-looking Graham, who is appalled by the App’s lack of privacy but eventually moves with the times. Other characters are played by members of the Community Actors Company and people who work with Deafconnect, the local charity who are also co-producing the experience.

Contact AppIf I took away one overriding message from the show it would be that it wants to make us think. It wants to make us consider playing a part in framing the health policies that will shape our future. Whether you opt to corrupt the code or push forward with it, this is a highly responsible moment for us all. Pay What You Can for a ticket – £5 is suggested, but not compulsory; and your payment will give you a link to the show that you can watch as many times as you like until the end of July. Visit the Royal and Derngate website for more details, or simply click here. After all, it’s not every day a ghost gives you the opportunity of changing the future of healthcare in the country for ever!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2023

Dan EvansTime for another rip-roaring Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, and this episode was a particularly fun-packed one. Our host, the usually genial Dan Evans was on fire with his barbed ripostes with the front rows, creating a fabulous mood for us all to enjoy the evening. Although he did have to find wriggle room when he discovered that front row Lisa was a kick boxer; all the belts, all the dans. We also had the pleasure of vicariously meeting 29 year old Claire from France (who was not really from France and probably wasn’t 29 either) and David at the front who clearly has such a huge personal charisma that he can’t bring his legs together.

Paul RickettsOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times before, was Paul Ricketts; a very safe pair of hands who takes the audience on a journey of age discovery – a lot of his material is based on comparing the behaviours of the old and the young. He has some nice material about internet porn, and I recognised his memories of the porn fairy who, in the old days, would litter the woods with torn scraps of the stuff. Happy days. His routine was interrupted by a glorious moment when a woman at the back of the room clearly and assertively told a chap who was on his phone to go outside to make his call, which he did sheepishly, much to the massive admiration of the entire audience. A good start to the evening.

Eleanor TiernanNext up, and someone else we’ve seen before, was Eleanor Tiernan. Naturally funny, with a nice blend of confidence and self-deprecation, she has some lovely observations about being Irish in London, and how nice it is when you end up crying for no reason and no one cares. I loved her stuff about what happens when an American performer is on stage in Dublin and says it’s great to be back in the UK; and she has some very funny material about going down a speculum size. Brisk, self-assured, and warmly chatty, she gave us a great set.

Addy van der BorghOur headliner for the evening, and someone we’ve never seen before but I have heard a lot about, was Addy van der Borgh; another naturally funny guy and gifted physical comedian, who instantly drives us into hysterics with comments about the way he looks. Full of fresh new material, he does a marvellous routine about how you age and don’t see it yourself, but the world sees you very differently; the sequence about giving a cheeky smile to a young lady and what she sees back is just brilliant. I also loved the idea of anthropomorphising a bottle of wine – naughty Monsieur Merlot, the perfect accompaniment to a tin of spaghetti ‘oops. He had us all in the palm of his hand – we loved every minute of it.

Another Screaming Blue Murder comes along in June – you spoil us, Mister Ambassador!

Review – The Grapes of Wrath, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2023

Grapes of WrathSteinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath suits adaptation well, with its strong story line and fascinating characters. Published in 1939, the famous film adaptation appeared a year later, and there’s even an opera which came out in 2007. The Tony Award winning play, however, first appeared in 1988, written by Frank Galati, and it’s a popular choice for schools – so in many ways it’s an ideal play for the Third Year Students to grapple with.

Meg MayersBack in 2019, I saw a production of Macbeth at the Chichester Festival Theatre; well, I half-saw it. During the first act, one of the cast members accidentally smashed the glass floor of the stage (perhaps an unnecessarily fragile item of set design!) and the second act had to be cancelled. Blow me down, but at the end of the first act of what was proving to be a most enjoyable production of Grapes of Connor DadgeWrath, the elegant fire curtain of the Royal Theatre thundered down with an almighty clunk and, try as they might, the backstage team couldn’t get it back on its runners and they couldn’t raise the curtain for the second act! So the rest of the show was cancelled. Why is it always the good shows where this happens?

I feel particularly sorry for the cast who have obviously put in a tremendous amount of work to make this production a success, and with only three performances scheduled, Achanti Palmerit really reduces the chance of their work being seen.

That said, I can report that there were some terrific performances taking place; none more so than Connor Dadge as the central Kain Waldencharacter, Tom Joad, who carries the story along effortlessly, is hugely believable in the role and has a superbly charismatic stage presence, without ever having to force the performance too hard – a true natural. Also dominating the first part of the proceedings is Achanti Palmer playing the ex-preacher Jim Casy, with a fine singing voice and a characterisation full of hidden depths – another very watchable performance. Kain Walden is excellent as Pa Joad, a tough, ruthless but loving father; as is Meg Mayers as Ma, whose weary indomitability was really starting to shine through when the show had to finish early. But all the cast were putting in a tremendous ensemble performance, and it was really shaping up to be a first rate show.

These things happen!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actor for the year would be Connor Dadge.

Review – Love and Information, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2023

Love and InformationThe second of the three Third Year Students’ plays at the Royal and Derngate is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a series of 49 interconnected playlets, with some leeway given to individual productions as to the order in which they are presented. Some of them are long enough to give you a full sense of narrative and characterisation; Archy Mackillopsome are so short that they are barely a few words delivered within five seconds. The result is an intriguing blend of human situations, presented in an apparently (but not entirely) random order; there are plenty of laugh out loud moments, plus a few tragic scenarios thrown into the mix.

Charlie FranklinUnder Barbara Houseman’s direction, the ensemble of ten deliver a smart, snappy, constantly refreshing show that holds your attention from start to finish. Everyone gives a great performance; Will Merryleeswith so many entrances and exits, and costume and character changes, this is a hard show to get absolutely right – but the cast nailed it. A particular challenge in this play is that there are so many conversations where a line is left dangling because the speaker is either being interrupted or can’t quite find le mot juste. Katie BlundellBut everyone pretty much kept the conversational pace going in all their scenes, which really helped keep the show moving.

Highlights for me were Archy Mackillop telling his secret, Charlie Franklin as the spoilt brat who won’t say sorry, Saim Shafique explaining why his dreams gave him carte blanche to have an affair, Will Merrylees showing off his language skills, and pretty much everything that Katie Blundell and Sophia Foster did. Indeed Ms Foster can turn a characterisation around on a sixpence; always delivering with superb control and wry humour. But the entire cast contributed to the success of this production – congratulations to you all.

Not much more to say about this show really – if you managed to see it, you had a treat!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actress for the year would be Sophia Foster.

Review – 10 out of 12, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2023

10 out of 12I always look forward to when the final year students perform their full length plays at the Royal and Derngate; it’s the crowning glory after three years’ hard work and shows just how much they can achieve. So, if I see one of these plays, and I don’t enjoy it, it gives me no pleasure to have to say so. However, a lot depends on the play that has been chosen for them to perform; and sadly, for me, Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12 is a truly abominable play, almost savagely boring.

Hannes KnischewskiIts premise is that we see a long day of tech rehearsal run-through before a show opens; a backstage view of what goes in to make a production behind the scenes. But by concentrating on the tech, and its unavoidably stop-start nature, there’s little room for personality or “drama”. It’s hardly a drama, for instance, that the director doesn’t like the cello sound. No problem, we’ll change it – end of problem. And if there is a joke in all of this, it’s a very in-joke. Imagine how dull 10 out of 12 Accountants Version would be – two hours plus of intricately working through a trial balance on the way to presenting a set of accounts. It’s a bit like eating a cheesecake that has a perfectly ok biscuit base – but they’ve forgotten the cheese and the fruity flavouring on top. Just biscuit. It’s not enough.

Chante HawkinsI spent the entire time trying to work out what the point of the play was; the nearest I could get is that it ably demonstrates how idle conversations with colleagues are essentially mundane and inconsequential. What did you watch on TV last night or what flavour crisps are you munching, or is your sandwich the kind of thing I’d like to eat.  And that’s about it. Oh, and I guess conveying how boring the technical rehearsal day is. It certainly achieves that.

Brandon MayfieldIt’s also a frustrating production with a number of conversational scenes taking place in the Dress Circle, overlooking the fact that people sitting towards the sides or rear of the stalls (including myself) couldn’t see a thing of what was going on up there. For sure, there are one or two amusing moments – I really enjoyed watching the actors fumbling their way into their start positions in the dark, for example, and the actor who finds his muse by fondling the wallpaper – but the overriding vibe of the play is one of tedium.

George HastrupSo, an extraordinarily bold choice for the Third Year Students? Yes indeed; and I fear one that did them no favours at all. This is so avant garde that the garde isn’t within a hundred miles. That creates a truly uphill struggle for the cast to shine out through the drabness of it all. Some of the actors seemed to run out of steam with a level of under-performance, whilst others tended towards overacting. However, amongst those who kept their heads up extremely well were Hannes Knischewski, who excels as the animated and pernickety director Elliott, bitching and moaning and swimming in sarcasm; and Chante Hawkins, with a strong stage authority which she uses effectively as the stage manager Molly. Brandon Mayfield gives a nicely pompous performance as the respected actor Paul who loves the sound of his own voice and amusingly conveys all the character’s ridiculousness; and George Hastrup is also very good as actor Jake, battling on with the “play” whilst no one is listening. But I’m afraid the production as a whole is a considerable disappointment.

Review – The Witness, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2023

The WitnessI’m no expert on the matter, gentle reader, but, until last night, I’d never come across the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I’d always been just a Matthew Mark Luke and John kind of a chap. But now I’m intrigued. Jo Blake has created a fascinating and enlightening stage work which grew from an unusual experience she had in a local churchyard. She says she felt a presence behind her (at which point the cynic in me started to shift anxiously in my seat) like a winged cross, with feathers; it must be an angel, she assumed, which caused her no concern, and she went on her merry way.

JoThis relatively simple experience led her through a journey finding out about Isis – the Egyptian goddess not the Islamist extremists – whom she identified as her angel, and the story about the love between Isis and Osiris, and the wicked Set who destroyed Osiris. Further Googling led her to the existence of the Gospel of Mary, that had been buried in the Egyptian sands for 1,500 years. There are three copies; each has the same missing pages torn out. Now that really is a mystery.

JoMary – a complicated figure in the life of Christ. For centuries denigrated as a prostitute and the target of religious misogyny, it’s no wonder that her account of the last days of Christ was dismissed and ignored, not even making it to the also-rans in the books of the Bible. How could a woman who we feel today only tended to Christ’s physical needs and not his soul possibly have a meaningful story to tell?

Jo and RobJo Blake has spent the last four years assembling that very story, together with her performance partner Robert Clark. She admits early on that neither of them is an actor; she is a storyteller, and he is a dancer. And you can tell that from the whole presentation of the show. Not because of “bad acting” – that’s far from the truth. But there is an informal vibe that you don’t associate with painstakingly following a well-rehearsed script. When we enter the auditorium, Jo and Rob are already on the stage, quietly chatting to each other, relaxed, not in character, acknowledging audience members as they arrive, sometimes talking to them or waving to people they recognise. They introduce themselves to us, they explain their backgrounds and their involvement with the show. There’s no sense of their being a “play”; and there’s never a fourth wall for them to break.

Rob and the TowerJo has truly mastered the art of storytelling; everything is clear, makes sense, and told at a pace that we can easily follow and digest the significance of each stage, before she moves on. A simple set is dominated by a tower in the background, constructed from ladders with strands of red wool cascading from the top. Mary was from a Galilean fishing village, Migdal, whose name means “tower”; so the tower is an appropriate symbol for her. It takes on a more significant meaning later.

RobApart from playing herself, Jo plays Mary; Rob plays everyone else, from Jesus to Peter to Martha to Lazarus. I’m not a religious person, but there’s always a frisson whenever anyone depicts Christ on stage. One of my most memorable theatre moments was a promenade performance of The Passion at the National Theatre in the late 70s when I found myself standing directly between Mark McManus’ Jesus and Jack Shepherd’s Judas, looking furious at each other. There’s a marvellous transition in The Witness when Rob makes towards the tower and starts to climb the ladder, turns to us and just hangs there – and you realise you’ve witnessed Christ being crucified; that red wool is his blood. And all this time Mary is just arguing with him, remonstrating at his selfishness for leaving her behind. Ne me quitte pas goes the music – don’t leave me – and you physically feel the human element of the separation of Christ and Mary. It’s incredibly moving. At first, I flippantly thought we’d suddenly tuned into Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Calvary, until I realised its heartfelt appropriateness.

Jo and RobDo we believe in the Gospel According to Mary? Factually, it exists. And those missing contents from all three extant copies cannot possibly be a coincidence – can it? Peter asks Mary to share the words that the Saviour told only her and that he had told no one else; she tells him that she saw the Lord in a vision and spoke to him about it – but then the narrative breaks off, only to be resumed at a point where she is no longer speaking with the Lord but just explaining the vision. Andrew challenges her, saying her account is incompatible with everything that the Lord had taught; and Peter takes it further – on a personal level: “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”

Jo and RobAnd that’s the question that Jo poses to us at the end; whom do we believe? Did Mary really win the confidence of Christ sufficiently for him to impart wisdom that he shared with no one else? Is the Gospel of Mary legitimately the only Gospel written by a woman, and is it – to use that old cliché – Gospel Truth? Or did she make it up? I don’t know the answer – but I can make a good guess.

JoHugely thought-provoking and fluidly performed, this was the last of six scheduled shows to be performed locally, but I think this would fit perfectly into any theatre or arts festival – the story of Mary needs to be told!

Production photos by Adam Balcomb

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!