Review – Altered, Faux Pas Theatre, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Castle Hill United Reform Church, Northampton, 16th May 2016

AlteredThis fascinating play tells the true story of Beth Rutherford, a 19 year old girl suffering work related stress. Her father suggested she consulted a counsellor; but, for whatever reason, using hypnotic techniques, the counsellor implanted false memories in Beth’s brain. She managed to convince her – and Beth convinced the rest of the world – that her father had repeatedly abused her since childhood, had made her pregnant and then had carried out an abortion using a coat-hanger. Fortunately for the Rutherford family, history relates that the father was exonerated in the case; but the reality of what effect “bad therapy” can have on people provides a lasting topic for reflection long after curtain down.

The scene is set with some very familiar sound effects – hearing the Rutherford family make endless attempts to record their phone answering service greeting. We’ve all been there. It’s the sound of a happy family; giggling girls making a mess of it all, not taking it seriously, deliberately getting it wrong. It’s the sound of a normal family. That’s one of the reasons why, when it appears that Beth’s father has committed these awful acts, it all feels very shocking. The passing of time is noted by changing the letters on a scrabble board at the front of the stage. In fact, the scrabble pieces play a major part in the identity of the production – both the name of the play and the theatre company use this imagery – I guess because, like false memory syndrome – the scrabble tiles can be manipulated to create many different words and meanings.

Faux Pas TheatreThe play is structured round the sequence of meetings between Beth and her counsellor, interrupted by various other scenes that attempted to illustrate other examples of wider memory failure. Some of these other scenes relied heavily on a degree of flippancy that I felt was at odds with the main theme of the play. For me, rather than dovetailing nicely or cleverly highlighting underlying themes, they clashed and provided too great a juxtaposition between Beth’s troubled mind and total slapstick. I appreciate that they were well performed; they just still rather irritated me if I’m honest. The fish, in particular…. Let’s just say I was happy when the fish finally had his chips. I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a problem with me than with the performance.

One thing’s for absolute certain – it’s a stunner of a performance from Sophie-Rose Darby as Beth. There she sat, her eyes expressing that numb pain you have when you can’t join the links up in your brain to find a solution to whatever the problem is; undecided whether to find the counsellor’s attempts to draw her out constructive or intrusive. Her horror at her self-discovery at those terrible truths (that aren’t) locked away deep inside was very movingly portrayed. There’s a very difficult scene where she plays both sides of a confrontation between Beth and her father and she does it immaculately – unrushed, deliberate, superbly emotional. Her every line was spoken with complete conviction. At times she reminded me of Sheridan Smith. In common parlance, she nailed it.

Altered castOn the other end of those conversations, Megan Burda was also very convincing as the counsellor, with apparently no axe to grind and no ulterior motive behind the structure of her questions, but you start to raise eyebrows to yourself as she gently introduces suspicions and inaccurate imputations from Beth’s responses. Surely someone who appears this genuine couldn’t possibly be deliberately introducing poisonous thoughts…could they? The remaining cast members – Aoife Smyth, Ellen Shersby-Wignall and Lucy Kitson, gave excellent support in their sketches and routines; and the poem, which brings the show to a conclusion, was very telling and beautifully performed by everyone. Certainly a play that makes you think twice and tells its story compellingly; an appropriate choice for Mental Health Awareness Week.

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!