Review – The Blue Road, Royal and Derngate Young Company: Create, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 21st July 2017

The Blue RoadI’m always full of admiration for what the R&D’s Young Companies can achieve on stage; their productions are always full of style, conviction, and a sense of occasion; they’re something you can positively look forward to. This year the Young Company: Create have worked on Laura Lomas’ The Blue Road under the direction of Ashley Elbourne, and you quickly realise and appreciate the commitment of the cast both to the work and to ensuring that the audience have the best time possible.

TBR2Are you sensing a “but” coming? I might as well come straight out with it – sadly, I just didn’t like the play. It had some very interesting ideas in it, which the cast drew out as well as one could hope; but the actual words the cast had to say almost drove me to desperation! A typical sentence (this isn’t in the play, I’ve made it up) might be “I remember. I remember a cloud. I remember a white fluffy cloud. I remember a white fluffy cloud on the top of that hill…” etc. So many sentences seemed to me to be structured like that. A; A+B; A+B+C; A+B+C+D; and so on. I don’t think people talk like that. Not even in a reverie, which is so much of what the ensemble had to provide as a counterpoint to the main story of the play – an unexplained dystopian/ post-apocalyptic situation where children vie for superiority and control over others.

Eleanor BilsonThere’s a lot of Lord of the Flies in there; maybe some Girl With All The Gifts too – it wouldn’t have surprised me to discover a host of zombies just off-stage. We never find out what it is that’s created this terrible world; but that’s not, in itself, a problem. The children capture a girl who speaks in an Eastern European/Russian language, cage her, and threaten to kill her. Craig, the self-appointed leader of these vulnerable, scared and occasionally intimidating kids, tells her to have the decency to speak English or he’ll shoot. It’s like an apocalyptic parable of a post-Brexit landscape, where locals are terrified of outsiders and turn to violence to suppress them. In another scene, the delightful Craig takes the baby bird that Thomas has been nurturing back to health and kills it by chucking a stone down on it. It’s a high impact, high shock moment that the cast performed superbly well; and it very much reminded me of the shocking central scene of Edward Bond’s Saved that was notoriously banned by the censor in 1965.

TBR3The final scene takes us to a flashback where Craig and Pia first meet; a beautifully played portrayal of simple innocence and maybe a charming hope for the future. Then Thomas shoots them. The audience leaves the theatre asking how on earth can that be? If they die in a flashback, how can the rest of the play take place? I have some theories. 1) It’s a complete mistake and the writer didn’t know what the hell she was doing. Verdict: unlikely. 2) For the rest of the play up until that moment, Craig and Pia are ghosts. I’d have to watch it again to see if this could be true, and whether their interaction with the other characters makes it possible. Verdict: also unlikely. 3) Thomas shoots and the stage lights go out. We assume Craig and Pia die but he misses. Maybe the bullet accidentally hits someone else out of sight – an Archduke Franz Ferdinand character – and that’s where the cataclysm starts. I’m currently favouring that one. Anyone else got any ideas?

Kieran PeaceTypical – having said I didn’t like the play I’ve just spent ages discussing it. I think the characterisations and the unanswered questions to do with what it was all about are intriguing. It was just the speech patterns that sent me into a spin. And some very repetitive conversations too: if I counted the number of times someone was asked a question and the answer was a frustrated “I don’t know!!”, well, I’d run out of digits, that’s for sure. I’m sure it accounted for at least half of Alex’s lines.

TBR4Let’s talk about the set instead. Wow, the set! I think it took everyone’s breath away when it was fully revealed. Centre stage, a collapsed road dangling out of nowhere, its steel rods poking through and falling pathetically to earth. Upstage right, a platform for keeping a lookout, but more likely where Craig will hang out and feel superior. Underneath the platform, a hidden area that’s probably where everyone sleeps. Underneath the road, various bits of debris that have been assembled that might be of use in survival. Sarah June Mills has done a superb job in creating an extremely atmospheric and totally believable set – perfect for the play and practical for the performers. It also fitted perfectly with Charlotte Burton’s lighting; at times atmospheric, at times vivid; the road catching the blue light (hence creating The Blue Road) was an arresting sight.

TBR1I thought this was a very tough play for a young cast to get their teeth into but, as always, they rose to the challenge. Eleanor Bilson’s Pia was a strong characterisation of an essentially kind, reasonable, tolerant person driven out of her wits by appalling circumstances; technically flawless and great to watch. Kieran Peace was sullenly menacing as Craig, and carried off his rather evil personality extremely well, especially with the death of Billy the Bird. Tabitha Brown played the bossy Maja with great relish; it was enjoyable to see how unpleasant she made the character without ever becoming the “baddie” – a very nicely balanced performance. John Reed was excellent at creating a sympathetic character out of the simple Thomas, and also delivered perfectly the unexpectedly hilarious line: “it’s not very gender neutral!” (OK, so there were some good lines too, he admits, slightly begrudgingly.) From the ensemble, Martin Delos Santos Beach stood out for me as being a fine actor, delivering his lines with great authority and clarity. But the entire cast put in a sterling performance and absolutely made the best of the material. There were a couple of instances of rather tentative prop-handling; but that’s just a question of time and practice. On the night we went, a mobile phone went off, quite loudly, a few times, but it didn’t faze the cast one iota – good work.

John ReedAll in all, it was a very good production and performance of a play that did raise some interesting issues but irritated more than entertained me. Well done to the cast though – the packed audience was very appreciative!

Production photos by Graeme Braidwood

Review – Immune, Royal and Derngate Young Company CREATE, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 4th July 2015

ImmuneWhen I booked for this production a number of months ago, it was just called “A New Play”. But I had already come to the conclusion that you can really trust the Royal and Derngate’s Young Company to deliver top quality entertainment through the power of drama, performed with maturity beyond their years. So I was happy for them to surprise me with their new offering, no matter what it might be.

Production photosOver the course of the last year the Young Company has divided in two – the Immerse group worked with the Actors’ Company on Aftermath, a play that explored Northampton’s involvement in the First World War, and most recently Kontakt, where individual members of the audience sat at a desk opposite a young actor, for a private yet shared fifty minute journey of personal transactions. Both were wonderful productions. For Immune, the Create group has workshopped various methods of story-telling and direct address on stage and fed back to writer Oladipo Agboluaje for him to start working on this “new play”. In addition, two other groups of young actors, from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, have been through the same process, to help create a brand new work which will have three individual productions at each of the theatres, each with their own director, set designer, and sound designer. So this is not a touring production, but a different realisation of the same play by three different creative groups. It would be really fascinating to see them all.

Picked-on CraigSo what’s Immune all about then? A day that starts very ordinarily, and ends very extraordinarily. Monday morning at school. The fights and the friendships. The fancyings and the funnies. The secrets and the rivalries. The mates and the gossips. It’s a school, but it could be any environment where a group of people are made to spend the day together – on a course, in an office, on a holiday tour, and so on. You know to expect the intertwined relationships, and the typical characters. The girl who says nothing. The boy who follows Jesus. The girl who’s the brainbox. The boy who’s always picked on. The girl who knows that shaking out her hair makes her look attractive. The boy who is only known for being a knobhead. They’re all here.

ResponsibilitiesSo this very ordinary day starts with all their usual interactions, but particularly going through the videos that they have (or haven’t) filmed for Creativity Day at the end of the week. Then they have to go to boring Mr Brown for a boring chemistry lesson. Two boys start a fight (as they do) which causes some chemicals to be knocked over. They react (the chemicals, not the boys) and create smoke and gas, there’s a flurry of coughing and gasping, but with the windows finally opened, it seems as though there’s no harm done. But then they find that one of the class has received acid burns, and is in hospital; and later on, there are more serious – not to say apocalyptic – repercussions for other school members, and the wider environment; for the town; for the country. One ordinary day. One tiny mistake. One apocalypse. It could happen.

FightsTechnically it’s both a demanding and rewarding production, with the cast being called on constantly to change the scenery themselves, wheeling panels around, locking boxes into place, sliding doors together, all in full view of the audience, and all done with immaculate calm and accuracy. In performance, I also really loved the device whereby the whole cast stand up and chant together the lines of the otherwise unseen teachers and adults. It created a nice distinction between the reality of the human emotions raging through the main characters and the almost robotic and anonymous other characters, devoid of emotion. Very effective.

LaughterThe Young Company have once again worked hard to give us a tremendous performance, with great insight into the characterisations, some wonderful comic timing, and a real feel for the horror of the apocalypse. They work together as a terrific ensemble, and are very supportive and generous to each other on stage. If you’ve seen any of them before in previous productions, it’s very rewarding to appreciate their progress both as performers and as people. For instance, over four years ago we saw Luke Nunn (who plays Samson) in The Years Between, a rather spellbinding Daphne du Maurier story about a war widow who discovers she isn’t. Master Nunn was excellent in that, and today Mr Nunn is developing into a really assured and talented actor. Immune requires a lot of direct interaction with the audience, and he has that ability to take us into his confidence, as if he’s only talking to you, down to a Tee. Jakub Madej, who played (correct me if I’m wrong) the communist Dmitri in Aftermath, brings his imposing stage presence and superbly projected voice to the role of Albert, the workshy fantasist member of class. There’s a genuinely funny and realistic performance by Owen Howard as the hapless Craig, pretty much useless at everything, but a true survivor, (that is, if any of them do…). And possibly the most natural performer of the whole cast is Jarzinho Rapoz as Eric, who communicates instantly motivation, characterisation and thought processes with just one simple roll of the eyes or jokey facial expression. Definitely one to watch.

Teachers v CraigEsme Joy Allen is a complete scene stealer with her brilliant performance as Bella, desperate to get Peter’s attention, fully aware of how she can manipulate and influence others, but as vulnerable as anyone else when the chemical spillage gets out of hand. I really liked Scarlett Jordan as Denise, big on intelligence and big on hair, very convincingly expressing that sense of power you assume when people think you are a natural leader, but without being big-headed about it. When she discovers that the problem is more than she alone can solve, her sense of inadequacy is painful – and engrossing – to watch; great characterisation. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that probably the best performance of all came from Bethany Priddy as the eloquent and emotional Bonnie, trying to protect her dad’s reputation (even though she knows he’s in the wrong), and confronted by what actually happens to him as a result of the apocalyptic nightmare. A technically terrific, and really moving performance. But all the cast members gave wonderful performances and contributed to a very entertaining, not to mention scary, evening. Congratulations to everyone involved.

Any hope for the future?So all in all, a gripping production combining a very likeable and talented cast with an excellent play, both funny and frightening. It’s finished its run at the Royal and Derngate now, but it is still to play at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 23-25 July and the Theatre Royal Plymouth from 19-22 August. If the play has one message, it is – I guess – that you should live each day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right. Cherish your relationships, make peace with your enemies and be true to yourself. Don’t get bitter about the pathetic little things – there’s a bigger picture out there, and that’s the one that really counts. Oh, and always keep the windows open and don’t knock over the chemicals.