I’ve tried to get into the world of vlogging. Not as a vlogger, I hasten to add – no one would want to watch and listen to me spout forth drivel – but as a viewer; I’ve subscribed to a few people over the years, watched a few, but then they always seem to fade away into nothing much-ness. So this one man show, Push and Shove, by Crisis Point Theatre offers up a very interesting and believable scenario, where our hero vlogger, Jared Howell, is setting up his system to perform and record his latest livestream video, to be viewed by who knows how many thousands of people around the world. This broadcast, however, is going to contain something special, something different; a surprise for his fans, and an insight into his state of mind.
To be honest, I guessed from very early on what the nature of the surprise would be; it wasn’t difficult, given his sad reminiscences of the people behind the faces in his photo gallery that he has assembled around him, and the very ominous cardboard box that he has placed on the table in front of him. However, his descent towards suicide oddly drives the action forward; very disturbingly, but with a kind of hypnotic inevitability – although the only member of the audience not to see it coming let out of a scream of terror when the offstage gunshot was heard; people will always react unexpectedly to the sound of a gun!
This was a very well put together, thoughtful piece; not without humour, as Olly Manning, performing the role of Jared, absolutely nailed the character’s hollow mask of brightness and optimism, still putting on a brave and jolly show for his subscribers, whilst letting us see his tragedy when his adoring public were not looking. It’s a very appropriate piece for our time, not only with the whole vlogging phenomenon, but the growing awareness of mental health and the rate of male suicide. This show starkly revealed the uselessness – indeed cruelty – of telling someone to man up. As part of this “final show” Jared performs a poignant song – accompanied by Luke Mortimore on the guitar – which Mr Manning sings with great purity and heart.
My only criticism relates to the staging of the show; as Jared is performing to the camera for so much of the time, he isn’t actually performing to us, his live theatre audience watching this show. As a result, you get a slight feeling of being an outsider at the event, almost of being ignored, rather than feeling fully involved in his performing directly to you. Not sure how you could get around that, but it did have a slight distancing effect to our relationship with the character and his crisis. Nevertheless, it was a strong and authoritative performance that told its story clearly and with emotion, and, despite the subject matter, was strangely enjoyable. Congratulations!
From Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?
Despite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. I attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.
Actually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. And will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.
Nevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s character, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with superb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; there’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.
Connor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Ben Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.
There are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little different from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. And Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.
I blame Mr Smallmind. I was perfectly happy seeing all those wonderful professional productions at the R&D and the plethora of other theatres within easy reach of Northampton. Then he said I should broaden my vision and catch some of the University of Northampton Acting students’ shows. Start gently with the March shows in the Royal. Get in deeper with the Flash Festival productions. Now I’ve turned really hardcore, as I accompanied the aforesaid bad influence on my first visit to Isham Dark (isn’t that one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets? Darn well should be) and Shrapnel, a play devised by the students through their own experiences, observations and research of life on the streets in Northampton.
The programme notes describe it as an unapologetically sprawling vision of contemporary street life. That’s a really good description. The acting space at Isham Dark lends itself perfectly to this purpose, as we the audience look across the stage in transverse at other audience members looking back at us – as though they are our mirror reflection as we observe what’s going on in front of us. And, separating us, where the action is, the 19-strong cast suggest an overall landscape of hundreds of people coming and going about their daily business; and specifically, about 30 or so people whose lives intertwine over the course of approximately 36 hours.
Structurally – yes, it’s sprawling. At 2 hours without an interval I could have done with a pause halfway through, because it’s an intense show with lots to look at and my legs could have done with a stretch. What begins as a very diverse experience, with many seemingly unrelated characters just living their day to day existence, grows in force as you realise the hidden relationships beneath the surface. For example, you discover that person a) is person b)’s brother and person c) is in a difficult relationship with person d) and person e) is, in fact, a dog.
You could almost break the play down into individual playlets, some of which are very strong in their own right – either because of the acting, or the text, or just the impression they are trying to achieve. I loved the conversation between Jack and the girl who isn’t his girlfriend (Emmy? Can’t quite remember – very hard when the names aren’t in the programme!) but whom he’s trying to impress, when he’s concealing the fact that his super new job is a chugger. It’s very funny, quite touching, and indeed, I felt his embarrassment! I loved the night-time scene when all the homeless people get together and create a virtual living room out of just a rug and a welcome mat; that scene showed me something completely new about homelessness that I’ve never considered before – very challenging stuff. And I loved the scene where the two rival chugging teams have a stand-off, each trying to out-threaten the other, apart from the two newbies, who naturally want to have a good intercollegial friendship; very funny, and I can absolutely believe the truthfulness of that situation. I loved, although that’s not the right word, the scene where a guy, who is generally neither brutal nor heartless, gets caught up in chav/machismo pack mentality and starts tormenting a homeless woman with money if she’ll lick his shoe. And I loved the challenge you face when you’re giving a homeless person some money and then you catch them using their mobile phone – they can’t really be poor, can they? All these scenes are either heartwarming, horrifying or hilarious and work exceptionally well. And I loved the way everyone recreates the sound of raindrops.
We saw the first performance, so perhaps we should look on it as a preview? There were just a couple of loose moments, although perhaps not as many as one might fear or expect; it would be great if they had a plan for when the play definitely reaches its conclusion (!) and I recommend guys that you work on a smart curtain call; it makes all the difference as to how the audience feels about the entire show and its performers because it’s the only time we get to see you as you and not as your characters.
Having seen last year’s third year students perform in a few plays now, it’s absolutely fascinating to get this early glimpse into some (hopefully!) successful acting careers of the future. Of all the cast, I think only one person didn’t really convince me of their belief in their own character, which led to them giving an uneven and rather faltering performance. However, for everyone else, I totally believed in their characters, and many of them made me laugh and, perhaps more importantly in this play, made me cry. Well, very nearly.
For me a few performances really stand out as being first rate. Jessica Bridge is excellent as Harriet, a chugger with attitude – but not so much that she couldn’t be a rounded person too. She has brilliant clarity of diction and I heard and understood every word (a quality never to be underestimated!) She has (don’t take this the wrong way) a bad girl quality that is both attractive and edgy; quite a hard coating that conceals a softer centre. That really helps us to understand the sometimes contrasting and unexpected motivations of her character. I also really enjoyed the performance of Lewis Hodson as Ben, the homeless guy whose trust in mankind has completely gone, which results in his sometimes letting rip in anger against whoever he thinks has slighted him. If he’s actually based on a real life character in Northampton, I think I know the guy in question. Totally believable, with authoritative delivery and an excellent stage presence. One To Watch.
I was very impressed with Florence Rees-Waite as the pavement artist, holding her own, beautifully, against Lee Hancock’s formidable ranting insidious git character; exuding warmth and kindness in her interaction with the other people facing hard times. She has a very expressive face – it tells great stories without having to use words. When she does speak, she has wonderful control over the pace of her speech, which gives us huge confidence in her – you tend to hang on to her every word. Hans Oldham also showed great conviction as the Jesus Man, part preacher, part mental sufferer, part street alcoholic; he paints a very sad picture of this man but again with great humanity, and you feel with genuine affection. Connor McCreedy is a charmingly naïve Jack; April Lissimore gives a very enjoyable performance as the underachieving Carly with deeper problems than we’ll ever know; I liked how Olly Manning spins from being Mr Nice Guy to Mr Vile in that very telling scene of torment; and Kundai Kanyama as Martha successfully conveys the juxtaposing motivations of being a team leader; an element of coaching and nurturing mixed with an element of JFDI. And, it turns out, with a heart of gold.
The entire cast put huge effort into creating an excellent ensemble feel, each giving each other great support on stage, and giving the audience a rewarding and fascinating insight into what a typical street sees every day. I look forward to seeing them do more throughout the year!