Review – X or Y, Infuse Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 16th May 2016

X or Y datesI’m dipping my toes even further into the murky world of student drama, encouraged by my friends and co-bloggers Mr Smallmind and Mr Mudbeast. This is my first experience of the Flash Festival, an annual season of plays devised and performed by 3rd year students of drama at the University of Northampton. It’s a major part of their course, indeed it’s their dissertation, and so the performances are judged as part of their degree process – so it’s very important. Think of the jury final at Eurovision but with less glitter. Over the course of the first four days, I ended up seeing ten of the thirteen plays on offer and will write about each one individually in the order in which I saw them.

X or Y takes a witty and emotional look at transgender people, both from a historical point of view and also right up to date. It starts with the early court case of Ernest Boulton and Fred Park, who, as Stella and Fanny, were arrested for indecent behaviour in 1870 as a result of their transvestism and soliciting men. We see the witnesses, the judge, the lascivious doctor who gets too much pleasure from their physical examination, and the court’s final judgment. These scenes are interspersed with individual monologues from trans people, who you certainly sense are the real words of real people today, talking about their experiences of living within their own, alien, bodies and also how their families and society as a whole treat them. There’s also a projection into the future about what a baby-selecting clinic in the year 2041 might look like – and it’s pretty grim viewing!

X or YIt’s fascinating subject matter and it was treated with immense dignity and sensitivity, even though there was plenty of humour and physical comedy to enjoy. For me there were two major strengths to this production. The first was the ensemble work of the cast, marching in time (chiefly to Blur’s Girls and Boys, nice touch) as they reposition props and chairs with immaculate accuracy between each scene, everyone helping each other with their onstage costume changes which gave the whole show great pace and fluidity. The other strength was the truly devastating nature of those individual monologues. Each speaker would stand somewhere on a pink and blue line across the stage to indicate their position on the trans spectrum, and without fail each of the accounts of life as a transgender person was extraordinarily moving. There’s a sting in the tail too, reserved for the final scene, which really adds to the emotion.

There was a “dream sequence” – that’s the best way I can describe it – where the cast develop the story through movement and physical theatre; I have to admit I wasn’t entirely sure what they were trying to achieve here and, catching the eyes of the performers, only two of them seemed to be 100% confident in what they were doing. Apart from that, the energy and rhythm of the piece were perfectly maintained throughout.

X or Y castThe cast were uniformly excellent; highlights included Rhiana Young for the beauty of her monologue, Grace Aitken for her ability to switch from comedy to serious in an instant, Stephanie Waugh for the relish with which she tackled the vile doctor, Annalise Taylor for that scary receptionist and Kathryn McKerrow for her sheer all round stage presence. (Forgive me if any of those names are wrong – it took a mixture of research and guesswork to establish!)

Great use of music, perfect ensemble work, and really thought-provoking material. At least one member of the audience was sobbing at the end, proof that the performance could really hit your own personal emotions hard. This is one of those great shows where you can leave the theatre a different person from the one that went in, and that’s a real triumph. If you missed it at the Flash Festival, you have another chance to catch it in July at the Bedford Festival.

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!