Review – Making their Mark, Face to Face Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalFace to Face Theatre have created a thirty-minute piece that looks at what it is to be a woman on earth. Now, as a man, I know full well that this is normally the kind of discussion that I’d much better sit out; no woman wants a bloke mansplaining their role in life. However, this play comes at it from a rather particular angle: what it’s like for a woman not to be able to conceive.

Making Their MarkAbigail is desperate for a child; but every time she falls pregnant, she miscarries. It doesn’t help that her sister is the mother of a sweet but noisy child, and gives her all those ridiculous pieces of advice like sticking your legs up in the air so that the sperm trickles up and all that palaver. And when the doctor whittles down the possibilities for going forward, it also doesn’t help that partner Mark is a bit of a Neanderthal on the subject and refuses to get sperm-tested because it’s an insult to his virility.

In the UK, if a woman is infertile, IVF is an option if you live in the right postcode or have sufficient cash. But IVF is no guarantee of parenthood anyway, and childlessness is a common, and increasingly less taboo status. But as the play points out, other parts of the world are not so relaxed about it. Girls in Afghanistan marry at 16 in order to knock out as many kids as possible as early as possible. In parts of Africa like Mali, FGM is still an appalling practice that renders sex painful and childbirth even more dangerous than it already is. In Uganda, a woman isn’t considered a woman unless she has children.

Amy Jane BakerAmy Jane Baker and Hannah Bacon have put together a thought-provoking little play that shows you the invasiveness of medical questioning, the jealousies of other people’s children, and the utter hopelessness that some women suffer. Ms Baker’s heartfelt sorrow at her character’s increasing frustrations and disappointments was very moving to watch. And Ms Bacon was suitably stiff and starchy as the clinical (in both senses of the word) doctor, the snide office colleague and the well-meaning but irritating sister.

Hannah BaconPunctuating the scenes of the story are little snippets of good housewifely advice from the 1950s – which very much proscribe that a woman’s place is in the home, and which also imply that Abigail is trying to be that kind of a woman. However, the play ends with a brief video asking members of the public what their advice is for a woman’s place in society today, which allows the play to end on a positive, upbeat note, and affirms that it’s really no longer necessary to be an Abigail. It might have been even more direct if the two performers had verbatim’d these comments to the audience, rather than showing it in video, which takes a step away from contact with the audience at the last, vital moment. Just a thought.

But it’s a very good play that takes an awkward subject and deals with it sensitively and with good humour. Congratulations all round!

Independent Traders of Northampton – Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall – The Cultural Quarter

Stars and StripesWith 4th July looming, I was thinking about the nature of independence. Yes, I know it’s not like me to be that deep, gentle reader, but bear with me. Generally speaking, I can see there may be two stages of independence – the first, breaking away from a position where you are dependent – like a grown-up child leaving home, or the United States no longer being one of our little colonies; the second, maintaining and generally being independent, like that grown-up child taking the responsibility for his own life (and any who become dependent on him), and the United States growing into the most significant country in the world. Or at least until it was taken over by China.

North Korea flagFor the most part – not exclusively, because life isn’t like that – it strikes me that independent people, countries, businesses, institutions, and so on, thrive through being independent, rather than following someone else’s rules, making someone else richer, or living out someone else’s dream rather than one’s own. We all like to have our own identity, to create our own space, to apply our own intelligence to our own lives, to make the world a better place. Otherwise we might as well set up shop in Pyongyang.

Cultural QuarterThere’s going to be a Love Northampton Fair at the Guildhall in the town centre on Saturday July 4th, (Independence Day – appropriately enough) to celebrate and promote the town’s independent businesses and traders. One might think this just means shops, or cafés and restaurants, or bars. And of course, such places play a huge role in creating the individual sculpture that is our beloved town, and I shall be thinking about some of those places in another blog in a day or two’s time. However, there is more to it than that. In the middle of Northampton you find the classily demarcated zone of the “Cultural Quarter”, an area where many of the arts come together to form a solid heart in what would otherwise be a commercial centre. For example, here you will find the amazing museum with its massive collection of boots and shoes – a testament to Northampton’s shoemaking heritage – and NN, the Northampton Contemporary Art Space at 9 Guildhall Road, the home of the Northampton Art Collective, moved on from its now non-existent previous premises in the Fishmarket, which just goes to show you can’t simply demolish the arts. We actually popped into the NN Café upstairs last Saturday lunchtime for a glass of Pimm’s and a light bite – hurrah to them for providing top quality gluten-free paninis!

Royal and DerngateHowever, in the local arts scene, you won’t find a finer example of independent trailblazing than with the Royal and Derngate Theatres and their fantastic sidekick, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. Comparing with our neighbour Milton Keynes, there they have a wonderful big theatre, but everything that runs there comes through the Ambassador Theatre Group chain – an assembly of big shows that tour the entire country. So what you see in Milton Keynes can also be seen in Birmingham, Woking, Wimbledon, Bromley, Richmond, Aylesbury, or Glasgow – and plenty more places besides. It’s good business for the theatre industry and I’m not knocking it. But it does lack a certain individuality.

Made in NorthamptonOf course the Royal and Derngate will take some of those shows too, but more interestingly they also create their own home-grown productions. The annual Made in Northampton season is always a remarkable achievement, with six or more plays that make the best of local staging; and that challenge both the creative teams and their audiences with a season that does not shy away from taking on major projects and carrying them out magnificently. In the six years or so that I’ve been closely following the R&D’s output, they’ve created dozens of independent productions including transfers to the West End and Broadway (End of the Rainbow) and Shakespeare’s Globe (King John). Their productions have toured to Oxford, Leicester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and many other venues. They’ve been delightfully experimental too. The audience has joined the performers on the stage (Private Fears in Public Places, Town) or in the Rehearsal Room (Midsummer Bacchanalia), at the Holy Sepulchre (King John), in the Mailcoach pub (Honest), in Beckets Park (Decky Does a Bronco) or in the Chronicle and Echo Print Works (The Bacchae). Now that’s what I call inventiveness!

DesksAnd of course there’s also the Underground, a venue with its own tricks up its sleeve, where Mrs C and I have spent many an uproarious night with the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, but which can also lend itself for very experimental theatre experiences. The Actors’ Company performed Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies there in 2009, with the audience seated around the walls in a complete rectangle. Only a couple of weeks ago we saw the Young Company create their spellbinding Kontakt experience in a murky mist of incense and school desks. And I’ll never forget the extraordinary intimate staging of The Body of an American in 2014.

Errol Flynn Effie AwardsIn addition, for the last couple of years, we’ve had the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, an oasis of celluloid culture where the cinema actually treats you like an adult. Reclining leather chairs, a state of the art sound system, films you actually want to see, decent food and drink including several lines from local producers, and above all you get the feeling it’s a place that wants to show you a film rather than a place that wants to sell you a vat of popcorn and chuck a movie into the bargain. It constantly rates highly as one of the Northamptonshire’s most popular attractions on Trip Advisor, and it certainly encouraged us to go back to the cinema after a long estrangement from that genre.

78 DerngateJust across the road is somewhere I regret that I still haven’t visited but I have heard great things about – and that’s the Looking Glass Theatre. They have a theatre school for 8 – 18 year olds and regularly present children’s shows and pantomimes, as well as having a major costume hire service. Further down Derngate you come across the extraordinary house at No 78, the only house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. This is now an independent tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from all over the world who are attracted by Mackintosh’s unique style. Not only can you learn about the history of this fascinating building but it also has a fantastic restaurant, The Dining Room, which offers so much more than your usual museum café.

Love Northampton FairSo wedged within this small cultural enclave are a wide variety of attractions, and we are very lucky to have them. We all know of shops, restaurants, pubs that have closed down due to lack of customers. Don’t let that happen to our wonderful arts spaces. Use them or lose them – they’re far too good to lose! Why not show your support for our independent artistic adventurers in the Cultural Quarter by visiting the Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall on Saturday. It’s free to get in and you might discover something new to enjoy!