Review by Wesley Henderson Roe (January 2014)
If like me you have had the privilege and pleasure of watching numerous YAT productions over the years, you will not be surprised to hear that once again they have provided their audiences with an engaging, humorous and entertaining evening of theatre.
A Winter Festival is the latest in a successful series of January showcase productions held here at HHP in the Coward Studio. It gives an opportunity for this vibrant young company to showcase not only their developing acting skills but also to highlight their lesser known writing, directing, staging and technical ones as well.
This year's offering comprised three very different and complimentary pieces, and this report will hopefully offer praise and constructive comment to the three writer-director teams, casts and crews.
As with all youth productions reviewers are aware of minor shortcomings or weaknesses but we endeavour to lowlight these as we are also understanding of the dramatic learning curve that members go through in an all-embracing group like this, to the credit of those who positively encourage, nurture and foster this within the company.
The evening began with a comedy entitled Backstage Blues written by the talented Joanna Leppink and co-directed by herself and the ever affable Jack Tidball.
If like me you have had a not inconsiderable experience of stage management, both amateur and professional, then every character and situation crammed into this short piece will be only too familiar! I'm glad to report that in my days however it was rare to experience them all on the same night. However by doing so here it made for an extremely entertaining play, and the excellent opportunity, boldly taken, to create a running gag 'missing lobster' link for the evening – a nice production positive.
No doubt drawing from her own experiences and a vivid imagination Joanna created a nightmare scenario populated by an extreme selection of awkward characters that even the calmest of stage managers would have struggled to cope with. In this piece Joe Evans as that hapless individual not only coped but succeeded in getting his show up on time and fully cast. Joe has a nice comic manner and clearly understood the stresses he was under within the piece. At times he had a tendency to swallow words but his energetic and fraught playing more than made up for this.
(General Note: It is arguably the second hardest lessen to learn in acting, the ability to control delivery of dialogue without losing pace and maintaining clear diction. It comes with practice and peer support. Don't be afraid when directing or acting with someone who drops or runs over words to gently advise them that they are doing so and encourage them to slow down, breathe, and readdress the speech.)
Joe was ably assisted, or should that be hindered, by his ASM Pollyanna Jenkins, ever holding onto her swear-jar, while running errands and asking inane questions. Again Pollyanna had nice comic timing and a good understanding of the slightly dippy inexperienced assistant but willing dogsbody role she undertook. Their backstage working relationship was completely believable at all times.
For me one of the highlights of the piece was the omnipresent and enigmatic almost mute technician, credited as Ominous Techie in the programme, and ably played by Jo's co-director Jack Tidball.
A great piece of comic writing was beautifully realised on stage by this clever actor who instinctively knows just how to play this sort of mime-like character. Timing, appearance, glances and asides, pace of walk, all spot on.
We've all worked with the overtly gay, ever demanding, director who has absolutely no understanding of anything technical or the pressures of stage managing a show. In this piece just such a Director was played by Callum Twigg in smoking jacket and neck-scarf over rather oddly I thought, jeans and an ill-fitting shirt? If I'm honest here this character came the closest to overstepping into caricature, whether by design in the writing & directing, or by accident in the playing I'm not sure. Callum had clearly embraced all the attributes required of this character and delivered them with confident aplomb to his credit generating much laughter from us all.
Add to this mix a Prompt who hasn't slept for four days, who arrives late, and then sleeps throughout all the ensuing mayhem. Congratulations to new girl Jayde Edwards who took on this difficult task so well, and never upstaged the other players yet kept her character alive in the audiences mind by positional changes and occasional but never inappropriate sleeping sounds, and finally reveals that she has inadvertently placed the missing lobster prop in her capacious bag before curtain up.
Classic backstage shenanigans included the drunk leading lady who has just broken up with her girlfriend, the leading man having an affair with the second female lead, his girlfriend who inevitably finds out, and an understudy extra wannabe leading lady thwarted at every turn.
Caroline Gudge as the permanently crying, smudged make-up Michelle burst onto the stage and commanded everyone's attention from then on, Mark Williams as Dylan and Miranda (I want to play a Princess) Evans as Lorna caught in flagrante in a clever use of the sound prep room window, Lizzie Ward as the jilted party Joan who ends up randomly playing with plastic fruit on the floor in a corner, and Johanna Chambers as the 'I'm whispering to save my voice in case I get to go on' understudy Kiera all played their supporting roles with great enthusiasm and skill.
Collectively this team created a monster of a scenario with great energy and attack.
The second item was a wholly engaging drama entitled Good Boy most expertly created by Michael Bishop.
This insight into cyclical deprivation was not only extremely well written but equally cleverly constructed using flash back and multi-role playing. In the simplest of staging it allowed us the audience to create the time and place in our minds as the actors appeared and disappeared behind an anonymous black screen.
Using his knowledge of the school environment Michael crafted a play around the sad reality of families whose personal circumstances and poor schooling allow successive generations to flounder unless someone or something opens a door as a way out for them.
Based around the interrelationships between two brothers and the elder's girlfriend we were treated to a mature and extremely well constructed piece that twisted back and forth in a most expert manner., worthy of a far more experienced writer.
Jason Evans as the older brother Ross brought the right look and gravitas to his role as the serial offender struggling to cope with his dysfunctional upbringing and lack of application in his schooling.
He could be alternately moving and then threatening as the perennial antidote to mediocrity manifests itself in violence or antisocial behaviour. Yet his clear love for his much more successful younger brother always shone through. A really strong performance in every sense of the word.
James Parker as the younger brother Simon (and flashback teacher) brought a calm acceptance of his brother's malaise to his role-play in another consummate performance of subtlety and inner strength. I for one was not surprised by the final revelation of his sexuality though there was absolutely no overt hint of it in his clever acting beforehand, yet for me it was implied in his demeanour almost from the word go suggesting a confident directorial hand at work.
Emily Moss had arguably the most demanding task having to switch roles rather in the style of Stones in His Pockets, and I particularly liked the instant transformation into the mother pushing her 'bentwood' pram while eschewing any form of offer of help from a young and idealistic teacher. As Abbey, Ross's long-suffering but completely understanding girlfriend she came into her own creating a wholly believable character of real depth and subtle emotion.
Together these four should be rightly proud of a thoroughly excellent piece of drama.
The final offering is this trilogy was a farce entitled Death or Coffee from the penmanship and under the direction of Tom Wright.
Oliver Horsfall as President Serrano had the dubious pleasure of beginning to act while only a handful of souls remained in the auditorium, and while the remainder returned from the bar in animated conversation. He achieved this with studied concentration and then produced a fine portrayal of a hapless second generation dictator trying to live down to his father's low standards but having become merely the puppet of a coffee producing global cartel. The agent of which was the redoubtable Yvonne Trevelyan masterfully played by Johanna Dart with a cut glass accent and razor sharp wit. Her put downs were a joy and between them she and Oliver drove the show along with great pace.
(Indeed pace is a key word here and so important in farce, so congratulations to director and cast for maintaining an unflagging barrage of movement & vocality throughout, and in the most farcical of situations).
As the unrequited lover Anjum Dosaj-Halai had the gentler task of offering small measures of normality and peace into this manic maelstrom as the president's faithful secretary Julieta. This was a quietly understated role that was hardly noticeable at the start yet grew in stature as the piece progressed to the inevitable but beautifully acted denouement.
On an entirely different level we had the bombastic alcoholic Uncle Acosta, head of the legitimate regime army, played with verve and flair by Christian Dart. Appearing later in the piece this character burst onto stage and commanded attention from the outset, adding to the already frenetic line delivery and gun waving as the supposed coup takes place.
This liberation army was lead by its young figurehead Casimir played by Jack Prior supported by the obvious driving force of the uprising Almundina played by Harri Osbourne. This double act seemed very comfortable on stage together and for two relatively inexperienced players created a great foil to their opposite numbers. They in turn were underpinned by the gun toting rag-tag army of Angelo, Marianna and Vladimira played respectively by Rob Henderson, Tia Ferguson & Kirsty Osbourne, and each played their part with enthusiasm and added greatly to the visual and comic business.
Jack Leary made up this talented cast appearing in two very different guises as Vaudeville Jones the spiv arms agent trying to sell water cannon to the President, and then later as CIA Agent Funt called in by Yvonne to quell the uprising.
Farce is a great means to poke fun at the way we allow our world to be managed and Tom and his cast are to be congratulated on making us laugh while at the same time making us think about the influence some of our multinational business hold over poorer or less well governed countries.
All three pieces were more than ably reinforced by a skilled tech team headed by Megan Hird as SM, Michael Bishop as Lighting Design & Operation, Kevin Sebastianpillai as Sound Design & Operation and what appeared to be a small army of assistant stage managers.
Throughout lighting and sound cues hit the mark perfectly and there were several nice theatrical touches along the way.
Scene changing was handled swiftly and efficiently – always the mark of a well run team.
I look forward to your next offering, whatever that may be, safe in the knowledge that a new generation of performers, writers, directors and technicians are learning their craft in a friendly and supportive environment in which they can develop and hone those skills to the benefit and entertainment of us all.