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Review of National Theatre Connections 2017 (16 Shows) at Royal & Derngate (Royal & Underground), Northampton

Alongside the University of Northampton BA Actors Flash Festival, the Connections festival at Royal & Derngate is now my joint favourite week of theatre each year. This is my fourth year at the festival and each time I have tried my very best (and succeeded) in seeing more and more of those on offer (four in 2014, ten in 2015 and twelve last year). This year I cracked sixteen shows, including the most interesting, a chance to see two of the plays by three different groups.

I was able to see nine of this year's ten plays (a single nagging one, Musical Differences by Robin French was missing from the R&D line-up), and most I either enjoyed or finally understood their merits or reasons for inclusion. The writing of sixteen reviews is a little bit of an daunting prospect, however, I will do my best to review each of the plays and those I saw more than once, and pick around the comparisons.

Extremism by Anders Lustgarten
Performed by Bedford College

Extremism was performed twice at the festival, however, sadly I was only able to see the one performance. Missing that second performance was a disappointment for two reasons, one was that I heard great things about Milton Keynes College's show from fellow blogger The Real Chrisparkle and that it is an exceptional play that I would have wished to see a second time in any case.

The version I saw from Bedford College was an excellent tour de force of this powerful play concerning the arrest of a pupil, Jamal, and its effects and conflicts caused within his school group. Factions and frictions break the group apart to sides and things gradually escalate into some violence as tension and accusations against one another, particular that of Suhayla. In the absence of a programme (the case with many of this year's shows), I am unable to credit actors. However, the cast was strong across the whole group but for me the young lady playing Suhayla, absolutely the most affecting.

Lustgarten's script may feel heavy handed at times with its forcing of the issue, but it still feels scarily believable about what could happen in this kind of tinderbox. The rising at the end of perhaps the most unexpected saviour is powerful and the play is easily one of my favourites of this year plays because of all of this.

FOMO by Suhayla El-Bushra
Performed by Hinchingbrooke School and DSLV

I needed prompting just before the start of FOMO by The Real Chrisparkle as to what FOMO actually stood for. Apparently, it is Fear Of Missing Out, and I am now forever more respecting of my elders for their knowledge of what them crazy kidz are up to.

The modern age is clearly being lived through social media and a constant communication need of youngsters, and El-Bushra's witty and clever play explores this is a lively and constantly funny way and an ending which although a little bolted-on idea, does offer nice thoughts for the audience about how it was (if you are old enough), or how it could be.

Our main characters are Dani and Josh, and although both performances were strong from the two groups, I really felt that Dani from Hinchingbrooke just edged the real strong and confident character, alongside two likeable performances of the character of Josh. The Hinchingbrooke show had several great individual performances, although for me the young lady playing the crisp eating character (an evident lack of character names and cast lists is getting the better of me), was really superb, getting tremendous comic opportunities from some excellent timing.

DSLV's performance strength came from a little more development in their ensemble work. Although it was clear that some of it were superficial to some scenes, others like the excellent reenactment of the video game battles made Hitchingbrooke's scenes in this somewhat lacking.

So strengths and weaknesses in all areas from the two performances, however, they were both constantly entertaining and it is a very enjoyable play as well.

The Monstrum by Kellie Smith
Performed by The Young Actors Company and Huntingdon YT

The Monstrum is a curious little play which in style and character reminded me a little of last year's giant baby antics play. This one is less funny than that one though, and a little darker in content. It revolves around a place of an unknown location where the children of the place are falling victim to a disease called The Monstrum. This disease is a corrupted and extremely distorted version of that which befalls all children when they become teenagers. The grunting language, the lack of respect to your parents, the refusal to help around the house, the eating of fellow humans... Yes, not quite totally the story of becoming a teenager thankfully.

I am not going to say that I enjoyed it, as there are at times where even in fifty minutes or so, it becomes very slow and tiresome. However, both casts made plenty of effort into creating nicely visual pieces. Both had slightly problematic cage props to deal with, with The Young Actors one threatening to fall over unless the quite visibly slightly concerned actor playing Bolek held onto it until help arrived off stage. Meanwhile, the flinging of the blanket cover of the cage in Huntingdon's managed to rip the top off the cage and then it also resisted movement from the rest of the cast. They all did well to handle these issues and respect to them for that.

As well as scientist Bolek, the main lead character was The Mayor, and no question my favourite was from The Young Actors Co. Diminutive in stature, but really very entertaining and commanding. He also managed to contain himself following a slip in pronouncing Bolek's name, and yes he did say what you imagine he might have done, much to the amusement of the audience.

Perhaps my most favourite moment from The Monstrum over the two performances though came at the end of the Huntingdon performance as the red-haired actress playing Bolek's daughter went some distance towards full-on Linda Blair, minus the vomiting, cursing and spinning head though. It was though what came straight to my mind.

An interesting play, not Connections finest, but challenging for the casts to perform and both groups were more than spirited enough, with The Young Actors just nailing it on the quality stakes.

The School Film by Patrick Marber
Performed by Chesterton Youth Theatre, Arts1 and CoTeens

There was nearly no question that The School Film by Patrick Marber was going to be my favourite of the nine plays of this year's Connections I saw. I obviously had to give the benefit of the doubt ahead of more forthcoming, but they didn't and it remained my favourite after seeing it twice more on the second Saturday.

Having said that, the Chesterton Youth Theatre went some of the distance to make it my favourite, creating perhaps the most perfect Connection performance. It is very possibly my single my favourite production of the now forty-two I have seen and I am sure will be hard pushed to be beaten across the country. There a prediction for going to the National Theatre for you.

It is an excellent, tremendously clever play of a group of schoolkids being made to watch the 1946 version of Great Expectations, at first with disinterest. "It's black and f**king white!" However they grow to love it and as it goes on the kids are reenacting various scenes from the play, a particular highlight an extremely funny reenactment of the demise of Miss Haversham.

Each group does things very different, CoTeens has set aside performers of the scenes while the seated kids watch on. Arts1 has a giant gate to perform around at the entrance to Satis House. Meanwhile, I hazard to say, Chesterton just gets everything right. Their period music selection was perfect (unlike one show which chose more modern work), and it was also performed live superbly by various members of the cast. They actually had a superb realisation of the Ghost on a Silver Screen, which was lacking in the other performances, as Logan Roach offered a challenging, brooding and incredibly physical creation of the part. Finally the danger of sheer numbers, thirty-four performers, and not only the success this was, but the amazement of the audience it creates.

Yes, The School Film was no question my favourite of the plays I saw this year, however, I also truly think that Chesterton's performance of it, was the greatest Connections I have seen in my four years. Just so truly brilliant from the cast and director Suzy Marston bringing it all so smoothly together.

The Snow Dragons by Lizzie Nunnery
Performed by Harris Academy

The Snow Dragons was the first play that I saw at this year's festival and I have to admit that it wasn't my favourite. A sort of convoluted tale about a group of youngsters having to become grown-ups rather quickly due to events set in a fantasy type world. Whether it is my fault for lack of concentration or not, I did phase in and out of this slightly complicated tale and lose its threads more than a few times.

What wasn't a disappointment though was Harris Academy's performers and their total dedication to the performance. Within the confined space of the Underground and the audience up close and personal, they wielded weapons bravely within inches of that audience's faces. It was a skilful display of spatial awareness from the cast. Absolutely for me a performance more enjoyed than the play itself.

Status Update by Tim Etchells
Performed by Northampton College, Curve Young Company and Royal & Derngate Young Company

I had already seen two versions of Status Update before this year's festival (and I would see them both again in slightly enhanced creations), and I had already sort of decided that it was outwardly a rather poor play which had been performed well. I had simply not spotted any reason for why Tim Etchells play consisting of random facts and the spouting of which by the cast could possibly have met the grade of the National Theatre Connections committee.

It wasn't until I saw the third version by Curve Young Company that the light bulb moment happened and I realised that the play selection committee was perhaps a little shrewder than I at first thought. This is very much a director's play, a thinking out the box play. What is stale on paper, is for the director and cast to bring fire to on stage.

While the other two versions of the play had their merits with quality of performance of generally boring lines, Curve did something very different and brought the audience very much into the piece, even in one case myself as I was asked to move seats randomly and for no reason on two occasions and proudly read the line "Unless something goes wrong" from a card given covertly to me from a cast member seated next to me. It was a masterpiece of making a series of lists into an entertaining showpiece.

Having said much of the Curve version, it is true that the other two performances had improved on previous incarnations in their transfers to the big Royal stage. The Royal & Derngate Young Company version especially had brought the bells and whistles to the stage, bolder and braver performances and production. This as well as littering the entire auditorium with library index cards and hopefully having signed off on the "paper cuts to audience members" risk assessment form.

So clearly an odd play, or rather a what we know and don't list, but offering truly enormous scope to the director and cast members to make seemingly the watching of paint dry become a spectacle of theatre entertainment.

Three by Harriet Braun
Performed by Kindred KYT and Limitless Academy

This play by Harriet Braun is the sort of reason that I love Connections. A fun and relaxed play, free of the shackles of too much of the pressures of the real world.

Three seemingly unconnected pairs of youngsters meet one another by different means and slowly but surely form a surprising bond and connection with one another, culminating in them all arriving at the same event (but not together). What sets this take on boy meets girl (although this play does go beyond that also) apart from the usual though are the inner voices that each of the characters has. Paired up on stage, we hear through them what they really think, often to hilarious effect, in this constantly entertaining play.

Added to this is the superb third wall breaking narrator, an overconfident "artist" going beyond the requests of the director at times to enhance the enjoyment of the audience by telling us about herself. It is a brilliant creation in itself and is handled very differently by the two performers and performances. Kindred's India Chadwick is the greater personality of the two I saw, every bit as overpowering and bolshy as the character feels it should be. Meanwhile, Limitless take on the role is to be more hands on, and the actress this time becomes not only a performer but also very much stage manager.

The two performances were as always quite different, with acting plaudits just being taken by the Kindred production. Limitless though had a clever mirroring movement idea with their inner voices, matching the movement of their counterparts in a lot of the early parts of each scene.

So, definitely, Three is a top draw piece for Connections, fun without being heavy handed with the need to tick a box of issue. This leaves the audience happy, and the cast able to perform in a joyful way. It's nice to be challenged by theatre, however sometimes let us also just have an awful lot of fun now and again.

#YOLO by Matthew Bulgo
Performed by Mark Rutherford School

At odds with Three is this issue piece from Matthew Bulgo, depicting the worthy idea of what happens when someone is given the worst possible health news. Bulgo's play offers some insights to this with its formulaic take on the event, but perhaps at times feels as if it has been selected purely because it ticks a box of a theme. It never feels as if it explores Jack's trials as deeply as you feel it should, you want more grief, more distress often if this play really wants to explore what is an overwhelmingly challenging time.

Lewis Snell as Jack does his absolute best to create this despair, and there are also a couple of excellent performances from Dani Reynolds as his girlfriend Lucy, and Wiktoria Walkowiak as his sister Lydia. However, no matter how much they try to inspire emotion into the roles, they are hampered a little by Bulgo's lack of depth in the script.

Zero for the Young Dudes! by Alistair McDowall
Performed by Peterborough Regional College (PRC)

This is more like it, a true ensemble piece giving everyone the chance to shine and some great scenes for character development and physical theatre, while still having a cohesive story. A curious mix of 1984 and a little A Clockwork Orange, McDowall places a group of youths in a camp seemingly due to misdemeanours they have perpetrated. In here they both plot an uprising and go about their mundane, incarcerated lives.

There are clever visuals and physical work in this production, with the brooding Big Brother-like watcher overseeing on a projected screen. A great shower scene with discussions in a queue while each one in turn with their shadowed form go about their cleaning business, often with great humour. There is also an amazing scene of brilliant simplicity of moving dirt from one place to another, that the two performers truly nail in the sheer boringness of it, one talking incessantly about pointless things, the other despairing at being trapped with him.

Zero is a really interesting play, full of huge scope for directing choices and one which the Peterborough Regional College make their own with a really enjoyable production.

So, it is a wrap on another hugely enjoyable collection of plays. There is always something to gain from every show, be it a superb play, a classily directed piece or a standout performance. There is always much to like, and like I did again this year and I will surely be back for more next year, although sixteen is now quite a number to beat.

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