Review – A Servant to Two Masters, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

A Servant to Two MastersFrom a play held in such high reverence that one dare not tinker with it at all (The Crucible), to the complete opposite! Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters was written in 1746 and keeps coming back in different guises, most notably recently in Richard Bean’s hilarious and amazingly successful adaptation, One Man Two Guvnors. Its characters are largely taken straight from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with Trufaldino the servant as the Harlequin character, the aged merchant Pantaloon, the pompous Doctor Lombardi, Brighella the keeper of the tavern, and the high-class lovers (here as Clarice and Silvio). The tradition involved a great deal of jokey asides, plenty of interaction with the audience, music and dance.

Doctor, Pantaloon, Silvio and ClariceThis Final Year Students production was directed by the creative and brilliant Mr Frank Wurzinger, whom I still remember as the superb Doctor Zee in Flathampton. I still have his prescription for a vodka shot. I can think of few people more suited to bringing this kind of play to life. There are, however, two aspects of the direction that I think didn’t help the presentation of the show. In the centre of the large acting space of the Jacksons Lane Theatre they created a smaller space – a raised platform where 95% of the activity took place. This was in front of an equally small, closed, proscenium arch curtain. Whilst this may have given absolutely the right impression of a theatrical staging, it also reduced the acting space and made it feel really cramped and claustrophobic. There were also two small trampolines either side of the stage, which the characters/actors had either to bounce on, or bounce off, to enter or leave the acting space. Whilst this initially was an amusing quirk, and I understand it can be a way of creating additional energy with the characters’ entrances, it actually did nothing to serve the purpose of the play other than to reduce the acting space even further. I didn’t sense that the trampolines gave our cast any additional energy. Only Robert Barnes, as the drunken Florindo waiting for his food, used the trampoline entry/exit to additional comic effect with a drunken bounce.

Terrell OswaldIn retrospect, this was always going to be a very difficult play to get right, requiring massively strong ensemble playing and split-second choreographic precision. I had high hopes for this, but I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. For this to work it needed to be as slick as a tub of Brylcreem, but regrettably much of it was quite slapdash, sacrificing accuracy for madcap. And while half the cast nailed it, the other half spent the evening pulling out those aforementioned nails.

Emilia OwenThe one person who was absolutely supreme on that stage, and gave the best performance I’d seen him give, was Terrell Oswald, who invested the Pantaloon with just the right amount of dignity and pomposity so that when his world turns upside down it’s genuinely funny. A superb stage presence, perfect timing, and, as always with Mr Oswald, an unexpectedly agile physical performance. First rate. My other “personal best performance” award would go to Emilia Owen as Clarice; brilliant facial expressions, an excellent balance of portraying the character’s true emotions as well as fulfilling the commedia dell’arte stock role, and terrific vocal command. A really enjoyable performance.

Robert BarnesRobert Barnes never fails to provide a polished performance and his Florindo was accomplished and technically strong, as he persisted with the serious nature of the role whether he was screaming drunk or made to look ridiculous, covered in a face-pack with accompanying cucumber. And Jac Burbidge played the otherwise dullish character of Silvio with a well-balanced mixture of courtliness and cheekiness that never strayed into self-indulgence. I enjoyed Bryony Ditchburn’s performance as Beatrice but I did get heartily sick of the sock and two apples down the front of the pants. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s I Never Do Anything Twice: “once, yes, once for a lark; twice, though, loses the spark”.

Jac BurbidgeThere was a lot of good in this production, but at the end it felt like it had been bogged down by a ragged end-of-term mentality that I didn’t share. Still, there were plenty of laughs and it went down very well with the audience, so what do I know?

Review – Something Human, Incubus Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Something HumanMens sana in corpore sano, said Juvenal (apparently). The best you can hope for as a human being is to have a healthy mind in a healthy body; one’s not that much good without the other. Incubus Theatre’s Something Human introduces us to four people whose lives are interwoven by an office – a manager, a personal assistant, a cleaner and a woman who lives nearby whose daughter has gone missing. But something’s not right. The cleaner is playing too significant a role in the company for her status. When the mother comes to distribute leaflets about the missing girl, it’s to the cleaner that she asks permission – which isn’t granted, and with very bad grace. When the PA finds she’s been seconded to work alongside the manager, it’s to the cleaner that she asks not to be given that role. (Why are you asking me, I’m only the cleaner comes the undeniably fair response). Meanwhile, on the phone at home, the cleaner makes aggressive assignations with random men; whilst the manager is exposed as a sexually predatory domination fetishist, the PA (female) is a paedophile, and the mother has murdered her daughter. In an evening’s entertainment that goes too far, the manager slaughters the PA; after all that, the cleaner is charged with the murder of three men. Something Human is the title – but there’s not much in the way of mens sana or corpore sano going on here.

Jason PileBut that’s the intriguing web of deceit that this play sets up. The final scene shows the cleaner talking through Munchausen Syndrome with a psychologist. This is a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. But what are the actual repercussions of that fact on the case? One thing’s for sure; the cleaner is mentally unstable. My own interpretation is that the mother, the manager and the PA are all real people, who wander in and out of the cleaner’s life at the office, Anya Gallagherbut that a) they don’t have the mental illnesses or sexual perversions that the cleaner has attributed to them and that b) nor are they dead. Or murderers. I could be wrong here. All’s not as it seems at any rate. And it’s enormous fun to pick up the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the plot and try to place them in a pattern that makes sense! If you’ve seen it, do you agree with my interpretation?

Emilia OwenThere are some very good performances caught up in the machinations of this play! Jason Pile plays the manager with just the right touch of sleazy middle-management arrogance, on the sneaky lookout for a bit of skirt. He identifies all the areas of the text where he can create just a bit of humour to help fill out his character and you warm to him, even if his character is largely loathsome! A perfect foil for this character is Anya Gallagher’s PA, anxiously expecting a tough interview, tentatively finding her feet in the new role, working out how and when she can start to assert herself in the job. I love her range of facial expressions, Lori Heatheryou know full well when she’s genuinely interested and when she’s humouring those around her. There was one extremely funny and beautifully played scene between all four actors when the manager and the PA are texting each other during a meeting and the other staff are all too polite to mention it. And there’s also the Grand Guignol scene where Mr Pile emerges covered in blood and Ms Gallagher doesn’t emerge at all; it was a very powerful visual effect.

A bloody JasonEmilia Owen brings a good degree of motherly warmth to her role and is very moving in the scene where she begs forgiveness in the church. I didn’t really believe that someone as kind-hearted as her would be capable of killing their own child – and I think, on reflection, I was right! At the other end of the scale, Lori Heather’s tough talking, aggressive cleaner is the stuff of nightmares and it’s a great characterisation of someone who’s lost sight of anything human about themselves. My only slight criticism would be that at times of high anxiety and near hysteria, some of her verbal clarity got lost. I could tell she was furious, but I couldn’t always make out the words that expressed it!

Very nice ensemble work and a great star coupling with Mr Pile and Ms Gallagher. And a thought-provoking play that’s still intriguing me several days later! Congratulations on an enjoyable and challenging production.