Review – Broken, Out of Mind Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Salvation Army Hall, Northampton, 22nd May 2017

Out of Mind theatreThe 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.

Cast of BrokenThis 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.

Ben HamptonFocus 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?

Victoria RowlandsWhat’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.

Liam FaikIt’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, Becky Fowlerwhich 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.

Rachel Graham-BrownFantastic 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!

Review – She Echoes, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 7th December 2016

she-echoesLast 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.

Karr KennedyThe 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.

Benjamin HamptonThey 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.

Rachel Graham-BrownI 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!

Liam FaikI 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!