Review – O,FFS, Ytho? Theatre, University of Northampton Graduate Students, Avenue Campus, Northampton, 24th October 2018

Watch out for spoilers in this review!!

OFFSOne of the productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I weren’t able to see at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer was O,FFS, a devised comedy about office life and the political machinations that take place therein. I’d seen that it had some good reviews, but, as Mrs C always says, you can’t see everything. Normally, if you miss a decent show at the Fringe, you’d be very lucky to ever get a chance to catch it somewhere else second time round. But, as luck would have it, Ytho? Theatre, which consists of four strong alumni from the last couple of years’ pick of Acting Students at the University of Northampton, have brought back their O,FFS to their alma mater so their contemporaries could see what they’ve been getting up to since graduating; and, fortunately, Mr Smallmind and I managed to get tickets for one of the performances.

Jessica BichardIn this children’s charity office, the usual loafers Ben, the IT manager, Gail, the office supervisor and Angela, the chuggers manager, are idling their time away, concerned at the absence of the Max, the office manager. Max has been sacked for uselessness, and has been temporarily replaced by Sasha, who’s tasked with testing the rest of the team to find out precisely how good (or otherwise) they are at their jobs. Naturally paranoia takes over and it’s not long before their early trickery – like deliberately misdirecting Sasha so that she can’t find the HR department – leads on to more wilful disobedience. As things get more and more out of hand, it’s clear this is more than just a normal day at the office. But what will Sasha’s recommendation be – if she survives the day?

Liam FaikThis gifted little cast turn in a smashing performance in this very funny, quirky and surreal play, that sees the story retold from several different points of view – which means that each of the four characters acquire different characteristics and accents, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s performed at breakneck speed, with absolutely no time to pause for breath between individual scenes, so it builds to a tremendous crescendo; and you also appreciate how demanding it is for the cast to constantly switch in and out of character and voice.

Aoife SmythAll four actors create a perfect ensemble, with great trust and respect between each other, which gives you such confidence that they’re going to give you a great performance – and they do. Jessica Bichard tries to be the sensible voice of the team and acts as a kind of spirit level against which you can assess how bizarre everyone else is. Very effective Russian accent too! Liam Faik, as always, gives a fantastically strong performance, vainly milking the double entendres in his sexualised interview with Sasha, and either splendidly manipulative or manipulated in the office politics, depending on whose point of view you’re watching. Aoife Smyth gives Sasha a range of brilliant characteristics, from the kindly, helpful manager we all hope to get or strive to become, to the gangster channelling her inner Frank Butcher.

Helena FentonBut it’s Helena Fenton who steals the show for me, with her brilliant characterisation of the appalling Angela, the kind of person you really hope you don’t have to sit next to in the office. You know the kind; the type who speak their thoughts no matter how in appropriate; the type that invent irritating office rituals like Quiche O’Clock. Her down at heel voice, with hints of Julie Walters, crossed with James Acaster and a pinch of Jane Horrocks, sent shivers down my spine as I recognised in her a combination of people who used to report to me in my old civil service job. Particularly in her one-to-one meetings with Sasha, when she openly debated how seriously she was going to take the meeting – aargh! Painfully recognisable and devastatingly funny!

Well worth keeping an eye out for this company, as I know they are bringing this play to London in December, and I’m sure they’ll be doing some more great comedy plays in the future.

Review – Erased, Afterlight Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

AfterlightIn the year 2020 – that’s only three years’ time so they’re obviously predicting a rush in scientific research – Clear Laboratories are the go-to supplier of the innovative new technique for depression, anxiety and a whole host of Mental Health issues. Their solution is to implant a “null cell” to prevent a painful memory from recurring. I guess it could work; and I’m sure there would be many customers.

ErasedWe see three such customers in “Erased” – the sullen, withdrawn kleptomaniac, the recidivist return customer and the girl who lied about her age to get on the programme; and the play is about the interaction between them, trying to find out more about their pasts and why they are here. The scene is broken by one gameshow style interruption – a juxtaposition of lightness and humour with the darkness and seriousness of the main theme.

Afterlight castThis performance featured a large amount of video content, perhaps a little out of balance in comparison with the live performance. And, I’m sorry to say it, but I found the play itself rather dull. There was a lot of deep self-examination but not a lot of drama. The characters performed by Helena Fenton and Joseph T Callaghan were very downbeat and didn’t seem to have much variety in them; and it was only the presence of Luke Mortimore that gave the play any real sense of life or movement. The play accentuated the lack of connect between the characters and unfortunately presented the same disconnect to the audience. It’s a shame because all three actors have proven themselves first rate in previous productions, but I’m afraid this really didn’t do it for me.

Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.