One 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.
In 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?
This 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.
All 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.
But 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.
Over the past eight months it’s been my privilege to attend several productions featuring the 3rd Year Acting students of Northampton University. I’ve been to Isham Dark (isn’t that in The Lord of the Rings?) to see Shrapnel andShe Echoes. I’ve been to the Royal Theatre to see Posh, Pornography and Vinegar Tom. I saw all fifteen of this year’s Flash Festival shows. And I was honoured to be invited to attend their London showcase on Wednesday, where they once again showed their talent in front of an audience including many theatrical agents and directors.
Whilst I also saw the 2016 bunch at the Royal and in some Flash shows, I didn’t get to see their early productions and I didn’t see their showcase. The benefit of seeing individual performers in at least four different productions is that you can really get a sense of their versatility, their strengths, their vocal abilities and so on. You can see when an individual really excels in a role, or when they rise to a challenge and really surprise you; just as sometimes you can see when someone takes an unsuitable role, or for some reason just doesn’t bring to the stage what you hope from them. I love going to the theatre – I always want to enjoy it, I always want to appreciate the best of what I see. And that is my watchword for when I write a review; I will always try to concentrate on the good, and if I have criticisms, I try to be constructive with them. But I also always have to be honest, because there’s simply no point in doing it if I’m not. As at today I think I’ve seen approximately 1450 productions – so I do have quite a lot of experience from the front stalls!
The showcase was a fascinating experience for me to witness for the first time. Almost all the students appeared in fifteen short sketches or playlets, either parts of a longer work or mini-masterpieces in their own right. It seemed to me that it was essential to make the correct choice to show off each individual’s most marketable qualities. Use of humour was important; two of the pieces were absolutely hilarious, and in both cases the four performers – Karr Kennedy and Jessica Bichard in Diary of a Madman, and Lauren Scott and Olly Manning in Beyond Therapy – came across with really top quality performances. High drama also works well: scenes with great conflict, soul searching, confrontation and argument were memorable and brought out the best in the performers: Olivia Sarah Jayne Noyce and Benjamin Hampton in a scene from Closer, Victoria Rowlands and Joseph T Callaghan in The Mercy Seat, and Steven Croydon, Connor McCreedy and Jack James in First Light all excelled here.
It’s when the scene really feels like it’s part of a much larger work that I sometimes felt the performers had a harder task to project themselves. Nevertheless, I thought that Kundai Kanyama and Ben Barton created a fascinating scenario in their scene from Let the Right One In, as did Jennifer Wyndham, Becky Fowler and Jessica Bridge in Di and Viv and Rose; both scenes were very engaging and the actors created very identifiable and believable characters. There were some quirky scenes too; Luke Mortimore and Tom Garland presenting a very disconcerting but strangely convincing scenario in Perve; and Jennifer Etherington and Rachel Graham-Brown rounding ominously on the hapless Daniel Ambrose-Jones in the picnic from hell in Morning. Regarding the six sketches I haven’t mentioned – that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them or think they were well performed, but perhaps they didn’t quite have the same impact as the others.
It was great to talk to so many of this year’s “team” after the show, and to hear about what plans they have for the immediate future and in which directions they hope the careers will go long term. They really are a splendid bunch of people! What I learned specifically from an alcohol point of view was that Helena Fenton is not to be trusted with any sharp movements if you have a full glass in your hand (almost a calamity), Chris Drew can’t pour prosecco for toffee and Hans Oldham was shocked when I lurched for a third glass of the aforementioned prosecco – although less so when we agreed to share the remainder of the bottle.
I was there with my friend and co-reviewer A Small Mind at the Theatre and he has very bravely committed to paper his award-winners for the year. Whereas last year there were a few absolutely stand-out performers that were very obviously the best, this year, for me, choosing the best is a much harder task. I’ve had a stab at selecting my favourites, but I cannot come up with a short-list that I think truly represents everyone’s capabilities. To be honest, any one person from this intake is a potential star in the making. All I can do is wish everyone the very best of luck and I look forward to following everyone’s careers in the future – and thanks again for a year’s worth of great shows!
The description of this production begins: “Billy Milligan is a young man struggling with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) who is accused of crimes that he believes he did not commit. Tormented by 24 different personalities, every day is a struggle to gain control of his life….” Can you imagine that? Having that kind of racket going on inside your head? It’s not something I’d ever considered before seeing this extraordinary production and when it finished, I emerged much better informed… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
This was my first time at the Salvation Army venue, and what terrific opportunities it provides for a larger scale production. Entering the auditorium, you are very disoriented by both the overall darkness and also the luminescent blue from the back screens; they create a slightly disturbing and unnerving 3-D effect. Actors in the dark are prowling around, lounging, languishing; you don’t know who any of them are or why they’re here. You can tell from looking at the evidence boards at the back that you’re in the police station. You think at some point that you’ll probably get to scrutinise and understand these boards, to get a better picture of what Billy Milligan did. You don’t. But that is one of the fascinations of this production, the huge effort into detail that has obviously taken place, literally in the background, but that you don’t get to examine. A lot of love has gone into this production.
Focus on Billy Milligan – he’s clearly suffering mental agony. He’s no recollection of doing anything that he’s accused of – but the CCTV shows him, fair and square, assaulting various women in accordance with the accusations against him. He must be lying – or so the detective in charge believes. We see the detective interviewing Billy – but wait – it’s now a different actor playing Billy; Ben Hampton, who had played him in the first scene – and whose photo adorns the crime board on the back wall – is now playing the detective… Was there a last-minute re-casting? What’s going on?
What’s going on is a brilliantly inventive way of showing Billy’s MPD with a variety of actors portraying the characters behind the different voices in Billy’s head. One hears of people saying they heard “voices”; what I’d never thought about (and if this is my lack of imagination, please excuse me) is that these different voices are like different people; a six-year-old Liverpudlian girl, an assertive American guy, a sassy aggressive know-it-all chick, a sullen sulk. Men, women, girls, boys, all races, all ages, they’re all in Billy Milligan, and this superb piece of drama brings that multitude to life with humour, passion, tension and shock. Billy Milligan really existed, incidentally, although this play doesn’t represent him in any kind of factual or documentary way – our Billy was born decades later, is considerably younger, isn’t in America but in the Salvation Army hall in Northampton. This production stamps its own individualism on the story.
It’s a show of so many highlights: Billy’s victims, unable to come to terms with talking about what has happened to them; Ben Hampton silently reciting the words of all the other Billies as they take control of him; Liam Faik’s confused and cornered Billy nearly crumbling under the detective’s questioning; all the brilliant characterisations of the sub-Billies but perhaps most strikingly Victoria Rowlands’ young Elizabeth, and the hard-nosed bitch of a doctor who won’t believe that MPD exists; the meticulous mime scenes, which culminate in the other Billies each passing over one item of clothing to the real Billy, representing how he eventually acquires the other characters as part of himself; and the scene which made me cry, where Billy recounts to the doctor how his childhood was affected by his father – again brilliant use of video in the background that suggests just enough of what happened without having to spell it out.
Fantastic ensemble work, superb characterisations by all the cast; it was shocking, surprising, enlightening; it drew out humour from the most unlikely places; I absolutely loved it. This show should certainly have a life after Flash. Congratulations to you all!
It’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.
On Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.
How 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. The impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.
Pornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.
This is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.
When the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.
In the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.
After the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.
In perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.
The final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.
Overall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!
P. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.
Last month I accompanied Mr Smallmind to see Shrapnel, the first of two improvised pieces by the University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at their little den of iniquity, Dark Isham, on the university campus. Now it’s time for the second show, She Echoes, again created by the students and directed by Lily McLeish. Just to set the scene, let me verbatim the director’s note for you: “Imagine for every choice you make an alternate possibility that didn’t happen splits off. Imagine being able to see all the possible outcomes of your life. Imagine the tiniest change of one day could have the most unforeseen outcome.” We’re clearly in that rather exciting world of Sliding Doors and J B Priestley memory plays, where you reach a Dangerous Corner and turn one way rather than the other; and who knows what would have happened if you’d taken the other turning. Well, in She Echoes, there’s no doubt. All the possibilities are played out very clearly, and with substantially different results.
The bare bones are these – Emily wakes up (she might oversleep, she might not); she sees her sister Claire on her way to work (Claire might be drunk, she might not); she might take the car to work (or she might walk); she gets to work (she might be late, she might not); she has either a terrible or a great day; she meets a guy who asks her out (he might be shy, he might not); she gets her hair done and arranges to go to the Red Ruby for dancing at 9 (she might be alone, she might not); she has a great night (or she has an appalling night). All the possibilities are woven very cleverly into the narrative and, with many cast members constantly changing roles you might sometimes be a little unsure of who is doing what with whom, but that just adds to the general mystery and depth of the whole piece. It’s always entertaining and always taking surprising turns, and at 70 minutes non-stop it’s a burst of energy on the stage.
They use two methods of showing the alternative paths that a sequence of events could take. Usually they employ the straightforward method of acting out a scene from start to finish, and then acting it out again but this time with some changes. However, the most thrilling scene in the play is in the nightclub where instead of having one sequence of events follow the other, you have one story being acted out on one side of the stage and another story being acted on the other at the same time. This visual side-by-side-ness provides a stark contrast between the two experiences and has a really high impact. The music, the costumes and some of the props suggest that the play is set in the 1920s; for example, the market crates have London 1924 stamped on them, and in one scene they discuss Prohibition in the States, and there is one excellent dance number with the whole cast which certainly has elements of Charleston (although primarily was just good fun). Apart from that, nothing else seems to relate to that era, and the conversation styles are certainly those of the modern day, so I’m not entirely sure why they chose to set it at that time. I note that Emily spends 2/- on her daily paper… how much?!! I don’t think any newspaper would have been more than a penny in those days – Moneysorter suggests an equivalent cost today would be £4.25.
I don’t want to be nit-picky though. The play is structured so that each member of the cast gets their opportunity to shine and for the most part they darn well seize those chances and give us some excellent moments of theatre. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the entire performance, though, is how seamlessly each cast member integrates with everyone else; this is one of the most effective ensemble performances I’ve seen in a long time. Without a detailed programme (which, admittedly, with this play could be quite some feat to engineer) I might get a few names wrong for which I apologise in advance. I really loved the partnership between Benjamin Hampton as Pete and Karr Kennedy as Emily, when he’s so tentatively trying to touch her hand but can’t quite make it happen and she’s so desperate for him to touch her hand but can’t possibly be seen to encourage him. Anyone who’s been on an early date when you really think there might be something great in the offing but you don’t want to do the wrong thing in case you ruin it will really recognise that moment. Mr Hampton absolutely exuded that sense of reserved refinement in his characterisation throughout the show and it was a joy to watch. I also really enjoyed Ms Kennedy’s demure Emily, and her other character, that of the bubbly friend she meets in the street, who gives her the “360” look at her new hairdo – a really convincing portrayal, although not remotely 1924!
I also admired the style and elegance of Rachel Graham-Brown; she performs with great dignity and presence throughout and I also really liked her in the big dance number! But if there was (for me) one stand-out performance it is Liam Faik, because he most effectively conveys the wide range of all his different characterisations; as a vain wide-boy, an effeminate manicurist, but best of all as the violent drunk Pete who demands more from Emily than she wants to give and ends up fighting in the Red Ruby. His was the most believable stage fight I’ve seen in ages; some of those punches seemed to land so realistically! I guess they didn’t in reality, or else his poor adversary wouldn’t have been able to carry on (and I’m sorry but I’m not sure who played the part of his fight-enemy, but they also gave a great performance.) Mr Faik is definitely One To Watch.
A most enjoyable production, and one that (and I mean this nicely) values brevity as a source of wit as those 70 minutes are filled with excellence, but maybe if it had gone on much longer its impact would have started to weaken – so, structurally, it was superbly well judged. Great performances, many inspired examples of characterisation, and an excellent use of the stage with the big musical number. A moving play too; Mr Smallmind confessed that a speck of dust must have got into his eye at one point. Congratulations to everyone involved!