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Review of National Theatre Connections 2016 (12 Shows) at Royal & Derngate (Royal & Underground), Northampton

The National Theatre Connections festival has become one of my favourite theatre events of the year and as each year has passed I have attempted to get to see more each time. 2014 I saw just the four, last year it was upped to ten, this year I had the pleasure of seeing twelve shows in four days. I pretty much loved everyone (with a couple of glaring exceptions). Last year a last minute decision saw me see one play a second time by a different group, and it was interesting to see the subtle differences in the pieces while maintaining exactly the same play. This year I was able to increase this and see four plays twice, and the difference on two of them was quite amazing and made this years festival a quite stunning eye opening theatre experience of a new kind.

In order to get a grip over attempting to review twelve separate plays, I have decided to review the plays in the order I saw them, except the plays I saw performed twice. For those I will attempt to compare and contrast, and as I say, there was quite a bit of contrasting on those. I had also managed to cajole local blogger Mr Chris Sparkle to experience Connections for the first time, so I had a bit of theatre critic company on the first couple of days.

*

Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill

The first play of the festival was Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill and this was a tender evocative telling of a fifteen year old boys confusion over his sexuality. Performed by RAPA, this had at its core two tremendously strong lead performances from those of the boy, Tom and his possible female love interest, Amy. They were without any question quite brilliant in their performances and in retrospect now after the festival, remain two of the best from the shows I had the pleasure of seeing. These are tough roles, full of depth, and Tom's awakening is treated with wonderful deftness and more than a surprising amount of humour. Amy likewise, also a confused and socially insecure character, who as her friends think, needs a good shag was very effectively portrayed. They really were both a couple of star performances.

There are beyond the two leads though, some really fun and entertaining characters also wonderfully portrayed. Gary, permanently stoned, is played with relish and constantly entertains whenever he is in his far out ways. Also Ray and Steve, who I affectionately called the knob-heads on my notes, are brilliant in their totally caricatured, but very entertaining personalities.

There is through neat direction and a very strong ensemble a clean and perfect collection of physical theatre scenes, predominantly through the use of boxes. These scenes are performed with perfect dynamism by the very professional group and a couple of minor mishaps are dealt with a stunning amount of maturity. A quite frankly perfect way to set-off the Connections festival.

*

Take Away by Jackie Kay

With the first play as good as it was, the second had much to follow and as I write this now, I am still not totally sure of the quality of Jackie Kay's play Take Away as it was engulfed in the worst theatrical tragedy I have so far had to witness.

From BEA Theatre Company, this was under rehearsed, poorly presented, full of childish behavior, and an utter embarrassment for those having to witness it. A note I made at the time referred to the fact that it was totally clear that the performers hadn't even got beyond laughing at the content of the play, and indeed the word "onion". They let themselves down, they let each other down with their behavior when not on stage (cast members sat on seats either side, still on stage), and I frankly wonder why they were even there.

After the show I learnt that there had been a few behind the scenes issues that had caused a lack of preparation. However I also witnessed some of their work-shopping going on after as well, and I was quite appalled by the behavior during this. I truly felt at that time witnessing that scene very old. I noted that this was filmed, like all the shows. So there is some consolation in a You've Been Framed £250 to look forward to.

It is all an utter shame as you could see something there in quite a few of the performers that was trying to fight out beyond the carnage. I hope in the future, that those there with talent and ambition get beyond this event and go on to do what they clearly love and have a talent for.

*

Eclipse by Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage's play was the first of the four that I was to see twice. The first performance was by Northampton High School (NHS), while the second and the final performance I saw at the festival by The Young Theatre (TYT).

Armitage is a professor of poetry and it perhaps therefore makes sense that this would translate into his story (inspired on a true one) of a girl, Lucy Lime, who goes missing during an eclipse. Lyrical and poetical in nature, it can become a tricky one to digest at times and for me I did feel more comfortable watching the second version by TYT. During this production, the comedy and story of the piece seemed to be more digestible. It perhaps helped that their set was a great deal less complicated.

NHS's set was wonderful to look at, but perhaps far too complicated for the cast to work with in hindsight. It also brought in viewing restrictions which meant the audience was shepherded into the centre seats. NHS however did have some wonderful performances, particularly those of Georgina Balderstone (yes I had a programme for this, one of only three from twelve) as Lucy Lime and the quite brilliantly entertaining Glue Boy played by Shona Guha.

Indeed both performers in the role of Lucy Lime were brilliant and the stars of both shows. They both oozed confidence and were hugely watchable on stage and I think because of this they are both ones to watch in the future. It was interesting also to see how both productions handled the twins bathing scene with the latter from TYT unquestionably the boldest and bravest approach.

So an interesting play which became a much more entertaining piece on the second viewing from The Young Theatre, however many of the performances in the former Northampton High School version were equally strong.

*

The Musicians by Patrick Marber

The second play I was to see twice was Patrick Marber's The Musicians and had by far the biggest gulf between productions. The first from St Swithuns School (SSS) was very much a stripped back telling of the play, with little directorial flay put into proceedings and for those not having seen the play before, could find themselves missing certain aspects of the story. Much of this was successfully fleshed out by the second version by the Royal & Derngate Young Company (RDYC).

The particular prominent scene of the silent orchestra scene was the biggest turn of styles. SSS's version was dramatically cut back to basics, with a little pretend instrument playing, the few lines (very well delivered) and then a flash of random dancing. RDYC by contrast created a theatrical event of this scene, with slow and nervous at first instrument playing building through to more outlandish, standing tall instrument playing. Eventually this becomes a visual feast as some wonderfully and gorgeously created dance routines take place. Each suiting the parts of the orchestra in question as well as the characters of those performing.

The RDYC version also benefits from a star making performance from Tom Spencer as conductor Roland. Sublimely pompous, but lovable in turn, he strides the stage with all the hallmarks of John Cleese, he is quite brilliant.

For much of the time, The Musicians is more of a two hander than many of the other Connections plays and both versions have strong performers in the role of Alex, the Russian cleaner who finds herself in the midst of the action. While I enjoyed both for different reasons, I was just slightly more enthralled by that of the performer from SSS.

What did come across much stronger in the RDYC version of the show was the ensemble. As a group these were much better across the board, with all the characters feeling different beyond just feeding the lines. It was indeed key they were as strong as this, as they had some very complicated but wonderfully busy scenes of physical theatre to perform.

Where I did feel the SSS version had the upper hand though at times was the delivery of the lines. There was much better timing at key moments, as sometimes the lines were delivered too rushed from RDYC. A particular glaring one was where Alex tries to guess what instrument Roland plays from the box he has, this moment was lost a little from the fast delivery of RDYC, while SSS's slow method oozed more comedy from it.

RDYC however had the masterstroke decision to commission two extra versions of the featured song Pinball Wizard, both brilliantly performed. Also what is not to like about a pinball table inspired set with flashing lights?

Everything combined helped take the Royal & Derngate version some distance away from Swithuns' take and elevate it to the best of the festival from the shows I saw.

*

Blackout by Davey Anderson

My final play of day one was the tough and uncompromising Blackout performed by Cedars Theatre Company. This was the shortest of the twelve plays I was to see at roughly half hour. However this was quality over quantity as it was a feast of clinically impressive physical theatre telling the story of the declining social morals of a bullied youngster trying to make a name for himself. It is inspired by a true story of a young offender in Glasgow and it holds nothing back through its telling.

Early on we are witness to a very physical domestic assault incident and nothing relents for the rest of the play, although like all tough plays there is light at the end and hope.

So yes, it is tough viewing, however this is very much rewarding material and it is a tremendously well performed piece by the entire ensemble, and yes this is a true ensemble piece in every sense and one to relish and admire.

*

Gargantua by Carl Grose

The third play that I saw in two different versions was the totally mad, but very funny Gargantua. The first version from Foundations Youth Theatre (FYT) and the latter by my local favourite Looking Glass Theatre (LGT). Sadly on this occasion my old favourite was upstaged on many (but not all levels), as FYT brought a truly epic and inspired version of the play to the stage. On entering the theatre we were greeted with over thirty actors laying on stage as the dramatic arrival of the giant baby of the title was portrayed by a thumping of the stage from the cast and then the arrival of the piece de resistance, a giant inflatable baby, well controlled by its handlers.

Without question, it was a stunningly inspired (and frankly insanely dangerous) idea to use inflatables in the production. They were everywhere and they were quite brilliant, guns, cameras, safe room doors, and missles portrayed as rapidly deflating balloons let off in the stalls. It was quite brilliant.

As was the play by Carl Grose. This is one really funny play and the one best suited for a younger audience and cast. It is comic book antics of the best nature and has some wonderfully realised and colourful characters, most performed very well by both casts.

On more than a couple of occasions, the performances are where LGT gets the upper hand, Jacob Swann (yes LGT provided a programme) as Dr Swan is the perfect mad professor, complete with wild wig, while Harry Hall as Swan's often partner in crime General Malahyde is also brilliant. LGT also had more dynamism with the mysterious Agents, hiding under sheets and behind giant spoons.

My favourite performance however did come from FYT as the young lady portraying the developer Regina Buxley was a very grown-up polished performance of the northern bully.

So yes, with their epic production FYT had the grandest version, while a few of the performances in LGT were really very entertaining.

*

It Snows by Bryony Lavery, Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham

Of all the plays I was to see during this Connections festival, It Snows was the one I anticipated the most as this one the one partly from the work of the quite brilliant Frantic Assembly, masters of physical theatre. This was the main reason I had made sure I had booked to see two versions of it as well. This was of the fourth I saw twice, and had the most contrastingly different versions. Seeing one in the Underground space and one on the Royal made quite a visual difference as well.

The first I saw from the Core Actors (CA) was a comedic gem, while the second from Stamford Senior Youth Theatre (SSYT) somehow made the same play more often a tremendously tender affair.

There is a scene late on in the play between the two characters. Cameron Huntley and Caitlin Amoretti on a bench at a bus stop which is played so tremendously different in the two versions. CA bring full comic effect to the awkward developing relationship, while in SSYT there is much less comedy and more high emotion. It was amazing to see the two different versions, neither were wrong for me, both were brilliantly crafted.

The set was also an amazing contrast, in the Underground, CA had nothing other than a giant snowball and a bench pretty much, whereas SSYT brought everything to proceedings. It was the best of the twelve sets I saw, cleverly constructed, all angles in the windows on the back of the set and four towering street lamps. It really was something quite special.

SSYT also had snow (cotton wool) in abundance, as it was strewn across the stage and off it, to the delight of a youngster in the front row. A souvenir of his theatre trip taken home no doubt? The wool covered stage offered its dangers admittedly as it was quickly as slippy as snow it seemed. And danger was what SSYT was all about as they of the two went the most full on with the characteristic Frantic Assembly physical material. Throwing and pummeling one another about, the bullying scenes of Cameron at the start were incredibly impressive and you could almost feel the effort involved, especially as he was forced into that wheely bin more than once. One moment where the character was pretend thrown from the stage was another magic theatre moment as that young lad once again panicked and held his hands up to futilely protect himself.

While SSYT had all the better physical presentation, I much preferred the characterisation of Cameron and Caitlin in the CA performance, much more likeable and developed. Also the two young girls Britain's Got Talent audition from CA was by far the better with a huge collection of songs, quite brilliantly performed.

I loved every moment of both performances though and really would not want to pick a favourite from the two.

*

What Are They Like? by Lucinda Coxon

Although it wasn't the final play I saw thankfully in the festival, What Are They Like? is the last I review here and unfortunately I have to say it was a horrid beast of a play, utterly soul destroying in its content with nearly no light moments.

It was however very well performed such as it is, by Stagecoach High Wycombe. Very much an ensemble piece again, probably the most so of the eight plays I saw. It lacks though pretty much any joy in its telling of parents portrayed as adolescents with the same troubles as their children. 

Simply structured with a cast member coming forward telling a story usually of whoa and unpleasantness from an imagined life, I was at the end pretty much grateful it was one of the shortest of the event. However to give it its credit, it has one of the most brilliantly staged scenes at the very end leaving at least something of note to depart with. Oh and it was a neat touch to have some of the cast members sitting in the stalls at the start.

Those leaving the theatre at the end were glowing with praise for it, the power, the brilliance etc. I beg to differ and that is my pejorative as a theatre goer and pretend critic. I have frankly been better entertained sitting in a dentists chair. An unpleasant play, but well acted by the cast.

*

So my busiest National Theatre Connections festival yet and I think easily the best of the three. A strike rate of ten good, two bad is fine with me. Also a huge congratulations to the team at Royal & Derngate for all the wonderful organisation that was going on. I lurked as a fly on the wall near to a few of the workshops/feedback events that were going on and they were as fascinating to hear and see as the shows themselves. I am sad that we only get to do this once a year as it has easily become one of my favourites. Roll on Connections 2017!

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