17 - Review

Emanating from the National Theatre's Connections programme that offers youth companies original scripts to work on, 17 is a short play that explores madness.

Whilst the plot is intriguing the piece is quite a flimsy one, more of an appetiser that leaves one wishing for something a little more meatier. No doubt it was a useful acting exercise for the members of the New Venture Youth Theatre to explore and experiment with but it lacked the substance and challenge that last year's production of The Good Woman of Setzuan presented.

Ella, a hitherto normal girl, is approaching her seventeenth birthday when she is suddenly visited by three sinister strangers who claim to be her relatives. This leads to the revelation of a secret held from her by her parents that certain members of their family inherit madness that manifests itself when they turn seventeen.

The story tells of her fight against becoming mad and of the acceptance of her new-found relatives as friends rather than foes.

This tale was well staged on a multi-level set and given a highly stylised interpretation with an older Ella, played by Hayley Everson, acting as narrator and looking back to the time of that fateful birthday.

In the principal roles of the young Ella and her friend, Jinny, Sophie Carr-Gomm and Helen Hudson give excellent performances. Both of them confirmed the promise that they showed in last year's production.

David Gandey, as Ella's Dad, had just the right air of bluffness and pomposity whilst the talented Kieran Burke appeared to be wasted in a role that merely required him to rant and shout

There was good support from the rest of the young cast and in particular by the ensemble who effectively provided the nightmare voices of Ella's anticipated madness. It was pleasing to note that the lack of projection, a problem in the past, seems to have been worked on by the director, Nick Beeby.

A creditable effort from a young company that is growing in confidence and maturity with each production it stages.

Barrie Jerram
12th March 2005

The Prisoner of Second Avenue - Review

Neil Simon, one of New York's most prolific and successful playwrights, is renowned for his keen observation of the human condition and for often finding black humour in the most unlikely of situations. His characters are often highly neurotic yet provide much entertainment. Felix Unger in The Odd Couple is a classic example. Many others, like Mel in the current production, suffer nervous breakdowns.

Having been made redundant from the company to whom he has given 32 years of his life he comes home to find that his apartment has been burgled. His life falls apart and despite the support of his devoted wife he sinks into deep depression and paranoia. Despite the well meaning efforts of his sisters and brother he survives and is then able to support his wife, Edna, in her time of crisis.

The play is one of Simon's serious comedies and although the above synopsis may give the impression of a gloomy evening it was not the case. The seriousness was lightened throughout with wisecrack one-liners and much humour, albeit that the humour was a little wry and chuckle-inducing as opposed to side-splitting.

The play is a challenge to the actors playing Mel and Edna who are required to sustain the evening by themselves as the play is virtually a duologue. It is only in one scene that they are joined by other actors.

Jerry Lyne, as Mel, added another fine portrayal to his gallery of American men in crisis. He handled well the series of spectacular rants and rages through which the character vents his anger and frustration at the events that upset his life.

By contrast Sheelagh Baker's Edna was a gentle-natured creature desperately trying to understand and cope with the decline of her husband. Her performance was a delight to watch.

A lot of the evening's humour came in the one scene where the couple are visited by Mel's three sisters and brother. The scene provided some wonderful cameo roles that were grasped with relish by the actors, in particular Janet Hewlett-Davies and Diana Beall.

It is pleasing to note that the promise showed by Alex Epps on making her directorial debut with Not About Heroes continues with this latest production


Barrie Jerram
20th February 2005

What I Just Shot - Review

As TV viewers we are bombarded with images of war but rarely do we get to see the effect it has on those who are caught up in the conflict. Helen Nelder's play seeks to remedy that omission.

The action takes place in and around a humanitarian aid camp and tells the story of John, a war photographer suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his relationship with Beth, the camp's director. It explores their emotions whilst depicting the horrific conditions that they work under and the effect war has on them, their colleagues and the local population. In addition it takes a hefty swipe at the cynicism of the media.

This remarkable play is a collaboration between author and cast. What has evolved through improvisation is a powerful and moving work that takes the audience into a cleverly created simulation of a war zone and at the end left the audience in a state of stunned silence.

As to the production itself due recognition must be given to the technical team for the large part they played in the play's success. The realistic sound effects of bombardments were truly chilling and clever use was made of a large screen that doubled as an information board for the audience and a TV screen on which live video images were shown of the journalists' reports and interviews.

The production contained some particularly inventive touches like the balletic, trance-like mimes that opened each act and the house created by the cast that is ritualistically destroyed, its occupants murdered and raped.

As ever the standard of acting from the entire cast was extremely high. The opening courtship exchanges between John & Beth were sensitively realised by Jim Polkey-Calderwood and Red Gray. They conveyed a tenderness that conveyed beautifully the shyness and embarrassment of an instant attraction. It was unfortunate that at times Red's sensitive portrayal was marred by a too soft and too naturalistic delivery when words were lost.

Jane Austin, as Amanda, the camp's doctor, gave a powerful and angry monologue that spat out statistics to slap down a glib remark from a journalist. A haunting image that still remains is the harrowing monologue by the frail Mary, a rape victim, who is shown photographs of murdered fellow villages by a ruthless reporter. It was delivered with an astonishing force by Jade Weighell.

On the negative side it was felt that the play was a wee bit long and could have benefited from some pruning. Also there were when times a scene needed a little more clarification. For example it was not clear to me the reason for Darko's treachery in leading the journalists into a trap.

Barrie Jerram
16 November 2004

The Duchess of Malfi - Review

With the advent of Jacobean drama there came a movement in comedy away from the Elizabethan
pre-occupation with romantic love and characterisation towards harsh satire and heightened realism. This was equally so in their tragedies. In these their harshness reflected an obsession with moral corruption and whose plots were violent horror stories, often cynical with an outlook of extreme pessimism. They often took the form of revenge plays. A prime example is to be found in this powerful revival of John Webster's great play.

The widowed Duchess goes against her two brothers' wishes and secretly weds her steward, Antonio, and bears his children. Her brothers – one a duke and the other a cardinal – incensed by this betrayal of noble blood and the slight on their family – seek revenge by employing Bosola, firstly as a spy and then as her murderer. He in turn kills them both when he realises that they mean to do away with him. By the end of the play the stage is littered with slain bodies.

The skilful and sensitive direction given by Nik Hedges to this brooding production, along with many strong performances, provided a gripping evening and lifted any farcical element that such a bloodbath might produce to an acceptable level. Any laughter heard would have been of a nervous nature that sought to relieve the tension created.

In the title role, Rita Stone conveyed fully the complex nature of the Duchess. The lusty passion that lay beneath a sweet and gentle exterior was well contrasted with the touchingly tender scenes with her lover. As Antonio, George Williams settled down after a shaky start and then gave a good interpretation of the role.

Gary Blair was not afraid to give a full-blooded performance as her brother, Ferdinand. The character's descent into wild eyed and gibbering madness was mesmerising. By contrast Tim Blissett's masterly portrayal of Bosola was one of controlled passion. Although cast as the villain of the piece the actor brought an air of dignity and a touch of nobleness to the role. Likewise, Tony Scola's excellent Cardinal was a man that kept his emotions well hidden beneath an icy shell.

These tremendous performances were well matched by the rest of the cast.

It would be wrong not to give credit to the original music provided, on stage, by Eleanor Gamper as it was a major contributing factor to the evening's success. Her music at times had an ethereal quality that enhanced the atmosphere whilst its percussive element heightened and punctuated the action. Being in full view of the audience she was part of the production as in the style of the Japanese Kabuki theatre. At first I had reservations that this would be intrusive to the action and distracting but after a short while it proved not to be the case.

The staging by Nik Hedges had some very inventive moments. I was particularly taken with his use of death head masks as puppets in the masque scene and with the chilling effect he created involving the mad people from the asylum.

The only jarring note was that of some of the men's parts being played by women. It was surprising that this was the case in view of the wealth of talent that the New Venture has.

Barrie Jerram
24th January 2005

Another Country - Review

Julian Mitchell's play, set in a British public school in the 1930s, explores the link between sexual identity and political awareness following the suicide of one of its pupils. In its two principal characters, Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd, one sees the fictionalised Cambridge Spies, Burgess and Philby. Its final scene attempts to explain, through Bennett, Burgess's justification for his treachery that forced him to serve "another country".

It is in the rarefied atmosphere of the public school that these two outsiders struggle to survive. They are not helped by their rebellious natures –- one sexual and the other political –- for which they both pay a heavy price.

Although the play is an impassioned plea against bigotry and hypocrisy, some wonderful comic lines to which the cast do full justice lighten its seriousness. A particular comic highlight in the play is the scene of the tea party that follows a lecture by the uncle of one of the pupils. Dennis Evans was wickedly funny as the predatory uncle.

Kieran Burke, as the gay Bennett, delivered a hilarious performance albeit a highly camp one when perhaps a more fey and subtle one would have been sufficient. In contrast Chris Nunn's Judd was a more down to earth performance –- a crusading but dull social reformer. The character may have been dull but he was provided with some comedy lines that were executed with superb timing. It is indeed encouraging to see these two actors move up from the Youth Section and take on major roles.

These central roles were complemented by exceptionally strong support from the rest of the cast. One appreciates that casting difficulties may have necessitated one or two of the actors looking a little too mature for their parts as schoolboys. That said they gave fine performances.

I understand that Laura Bennett was making her directorial debut with this play. If this is the case then I look forward in eager anticipation to her next production.

Barrie Jerram
18th December 2004