Saturday, April 25, 2009

NSDF Reviews

Here's the stuff I wrote while on holiday at Scarborough. I've even put it in some kind of order.

Wilkommen to NSDF

The world is in catastrophic meltdown. The social-economic theories of the last 15 years have been exposed as gobbledegook fan fiction where the main character turns out to be an incompetent dragon who slays all the villagers and retires on a nice pension horde, a lifelong (apparent) virgin is dispensing advice to millions of fanatical followers about how best to prevent the spread of a preventable disease by not preventing it, and a woman has died from cervical cancer.

But! like a giant, black, monolithic rock (rock) rising up to smash against the tides of chaos, the National Student Drama Festival has been re-galvanised 358 days since it last died by the nomadic students who, like salmon, are drawn back to the seacoast once a year to do… things. Possibly involving mixed metaphors.

It’s a grand entrance but as you read this everything else around you will be trying as hard as it can to be grand, which might be slightly bizarre given that those who have been before will already know what to expect and so are likely to be unimpressed, while those that haven’t might well be using this paper to wipe away the tears of fear and anguish, so adding to the trauma with bright lights, sounds and directives is just going to make them twitch more. But then we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t like a show.

But we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t care either. And we do care. About you. The Festival-goer, whoever you may be. Although in this case only if you haven’t been before and need some helpful advice on what the hell an SJT is and why you’d want to be in one. If this is you then you’ve come to the right place. Below is a comprehensive guide to anything, everything and nothing you need to know about the titbits of Scarborough and the Festival. For best results, tear out this page, put it in your pocket and carry it around with you so that you can reference it without warning.

Scarborough: A History

Scarborough is a town. It was founded in 1789 by a Yorkshire man with a boat and an eye for water. He lived here undisturbed for 75 years until the Victorians discovered the bay and established a tourist colony. Now its economy thrives on neon, cuddly toys and tourists who find Blackpool a bit tart. Enjoy itss dramatic bridge, take wistful walks along the beach, hell, spend a few ironic pounds trying to grab a cuddly toy with a metal claw. Just make sure that you respect this historic town and don’t patronise the yokels. To be honest though you’re more than likely to get a glancing sideways glance at Scarborough itself because most of your time will be spent shuffling around the major venues, which are, in molecular order:

The Ocean Room – Part of the Spa Complex, it is a big hall looking thing where shows take place. As is true for the majority of the venues. It’s also got a bar concealed behind the black drapes, which is revealed for the end of Festival party. Ooooh. It’s also a venue where the crew are rumoured to be proud of their speedy turn-arounds. 15 minutes is the record to beat from last year I believe techies…

SJT McCarthy – Both the SJT McCarthy and the SJT Round are located at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (or Ess Jay Tee for short) which can be found at the major crossroads in the centre of town and to the right slightly. By the main highstreet. Opposite that shelter for homeless trains. You’ll work it out. Anyway, the McCarthy is used for those controversial things called plays.

Grand Hall – The Stomach of the Spa Complex, this gaping chasm is used whenever the Kommandants of NSDF need to herd large groups together, typically opening ceremony gubbins, dance nights and the ever-controversial and bloody stupid pub quiz. The best thing I’ve seen in here year after year (I’ve only been here for two previous years) is the pyrotechnics show where techies blow up pretty much every stage pyro you can get in five minutes to Bond music. The date is announced later in the week and it’s frakking awesome if you like exploding things and fiiiiiire.

SJT Round – Theatre space in the SJT which isn’t round but square, the liars. It’s also the location for discussions, where the cast and crew from two shows sit there and take your abuse/compliments for an hour. These take place at 12pm every day and should be next in the list after plays for things to get to. They’re a chance for everyone to have a say and create a primordial soup of ideas for you to take away and think about during workshops, performing your own plays and writing NOFF pieces.

Potter – Venue at the University Campus which you get to by heading out of town and up the hill. And a little bit further up the hill. About 20 minutes from the Spa Complex if you’re playing it safe. You might have noticed that things are quite far apart. It can take half an hour to get from SJT to the University, which isn’t a bad thing because exercise sheds the pounds. If you’re feeling particularly physically perky you can try running up the cliff round the back of the Spa. If, however, you’re unfit because you drink and smoke more than you should then get a car. Befriend a person with a car. Steal a car. (Don’t steal a car). I’ve had a car here for the past couple of years and zipping around lickety split is worth the death stares from people in green t-shirts with blisters.

Clive Wolfe Auditorium – A New Venue! Sort Of! It’s an old venue that was knocked down and rebuilt, just for us! That’s probably a lie. More likely it was rebuilt for the students at the Uni who use it as a makeshift sport’s hall instead of the theatre it was re-born to be.

Holbeck – Theatrical space at the Uni with a steep rake. What?

Spa Theatre – The only venue that could conceivably be called a traditional theatre space which is why it’s reserved for the end of Festival Award’s Ceremony. It wouldn’t be student theatre if it weren’t breaking boundaries with staging and what not. Oh no, I tell a lie, the SJT is a reasonably traditional space. I only just remembered what it looks like.

Spa Complex – Not a venue as such, more the throbbing, quivering hub of the Festival, if only because it houses the Spa Bar. Don’t lie to yourselves. You’re arty students, the bar is where you’ll naturally migrate. Get up close and personal with people from shows, unwind after a hard day’s theatre with a class A liquid drug, eavesdrop on a conversation between two NSDF bigwigs (mugshots can be found at the front of the programme), laugh at the right point, get in there and bam! you’ve networked your first contact. Unless you’re under 18. In which case… err… sorry.

Tesco’s – It’s here. It’s 24 hours. It’s located on the road on the left in between the bridge and the SJT junction. Get used to it.

Vitadome – This is where these words are being written at this very moment, in the conservatory-fronted building on ceiling of the Spa Complex. In this place, the Noffice, Noises Off is written and printed every night. Right now it’s an empty place. Ten of us are desperately trying to cobble together an issue when there hasn’t been anything to write about yet. And we need your help. All of you. Fill up these empty seats, come in for a chat, write, please for God’s sake, write! I don’t want to beg but I will. Whatever’s on your mind, we want to read it. Don’t be nervous. This is your chance to state your opinion, respond to someone else’s opinion, argue that all opinions are flawed, or just make a knob gag. If you can’t write, draw. Do it for your ego if nothing else. It’s 24-hour caffeine-induced hilarity.

And if you start to panic, remember: your itinerary has been minuted to the hour on that plastic square hanging from your neck. If you start hyperventilating because you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing just check what it says and remember that your journey has already been meticulously laid out, so just lie back and ride the tide to your theatrical destination.

Herons Review

It’s a natural indicator of the NSDF audience that on entering the McCarthy auditorium and seeing four hooded characters surrounding a figure hunched in a spotlight you can hear the group sigh of ‘Oh tits, here comes another cackhanded student social commentary…’ echoing out. But Herons is a play that knows its target audience and knows exactly how to use that audience’s expectations against itself. Like a theatre ninja.

So we’re presented with a story that centres around Billy (Simon Longman), a teenager that feels completely out of sync with his surroundings, who is being threatened by pier Scott Cooper (Edward Franklin). From this simple premise the play expands and develops in ways that are at once predictable and surprising. I hesitate to go into any more detail of the plot in case it ruins what is a beautifully pitched and paced piece, suffice to say that it reveals its details not as a cheap mystery might, but instead by letting the characters naturally uncover themselves through their dialogue and interactions.

The performances are universally impressive. Every actor possesses an uncanny ability to inhabit their character, from the seldom seen grimy wino mother Michelle Russell (Elie Rose) to gang lackies Darren Madden (Laurence Fox) and Aaron Riley (Ashley Gerlach). Worthy of special mention though are Edward Franklin and Mark Weinman. Franklin, already impressive in No Wonder, confirms all the praise he’s received with a ‘villain’ character who’s humour, anger, violence, and absolute insecurity makes his stage time feel unsettlingly precious; while Weinman’s deliberate performance and total insight are palpable from the instant he comes on stage.

Fittingly it is central character Billy who is the biggest enigma of Herons. Initially overshadowed by the other actors, as Longman’s performance grows in confidence so too does his character in presence. At first glance he is a protagonist who is nothing more than a way for a middle-class audience to judge those filthy ASBOs, but the journey he takes, his repressions, decisions and his conclusions endw up making us question our notions of victimisation and social justice.

Everything in Herons is layered: its settings, its script and its characters. It is a credit to the entire cast and crew that they have drawn out all these elements with assurance, dedication and professionalism. What in other hands would have been a standard portrayal of urban troubles and teenage angst becomes a unique vision of lies, status and retribution.

Return to the Silence Review

Is it better to have heart or brains? Back in school there was invariably a teacher, usually a science or geography one, who, bereft of some inspiring homework ideas, got the class to make poster presentations about some illness/humanitarian crisis, and, no matter what, your presentation would always pale in comparison to someone else’s poster. A poster that would have less than information than yours, but also have different coloured paper and glitter sparkles so would get the better mark because some idiot teachers will always prefer flair over substance.

And Return to the Silence is bursting at the seams with flair. The audience, sat in groups of six on the theatrical equivalent of rollercoaster carts, are trundled about so that they can catch glimpses of layered scrawlings on walls which are being projected live on a screen by an actor carrying a camera while people whisper into microphones and others leap across the stage while a piano simultaneously plays in the background and a sheet comes on stage and someone eats paint and a strobe light flickers on and off and Jesus Christ, are they trying to give the audience a collective brain seizure?

Actually, they probably are in the vain hope that it will evoke some kind of empathy from the audience. Before the show we were told that the cast wanted to warn us that we might be ‘moved’ by the piece. Which was nice. A lie as it turned out, but nice that they cared. You can show the effects of neurological disorders, you can explain their causes, you can make the audience sympathise with the tragedy of it all, but you can’t expect them to truly empathise because the whole concept is, by its very nature, totally alien. How do you approach the idea of randomly losing your free will with anything but senseless terror?

Return to Silence isn’t like a poster presentation, it is a poster presentation. A presentation with so much panache that even furniture is cleared from the stage with a turn and a flourish, but it’s a factual description of a variety of tragic neurological disasters with zero drama and no emotional hook. To return to the opening question: this is a play about brains that on the skin has plenty of heart but is really a meticulously calculated piece of left-hemisphere action with no soul. Now who’s having a headfuck?

This is one person’s subjective opinion, trust in it at your peril.

Every written review, comment, opinion and statement should come with the headline, ‘This is one person’s subjective opinion, trust in it at your peril.’ Recent discoveries in metaphysics and aesthetics have made it clear that there is no right or wrong, a person’s opinion is solely their own and every reaction is valid (the malleability and ambiguity of metaphysics means that it pwns physics when it comes to making an unfounded argument). So, safe in the knowledge that it’s all an illusion and you’ll never know unless you see it yourself, can we all take a step back and look at what we’ve done to ourselves?

Probably not straight away so let’s back up a bit. I thoroughly enjoyed Normal the other night. Of course I did, the director is one of my best friends, as are two out of three of the cast, the third being my girlfriend. This might be the Festival equivalent of name-dropping and if it is I want to be hung like an elephant. Regardless, it was obvious that any remote sense of objectivity I might have had lay tattered and bloodied at the feet of my desire to maintain a social life. More than that though, I simply had no idea how to differentiate between what I already knew about the people involved, the process, the truth behind Paddy’s moustache, and seeing the play as an outsider (or normals as you were ironically referred to).

Unfortunately this opened up a whole inner can of worms (the clich√© is valid here because I say so) about whether I’d ever written anything with any remote sense of objectivity. After 23 seconds of pondering I concluded that no, I haven’t, but then again no one in the history of literature ever has so it’s fine. Unless you believe some holy text is the literal word of God but if this is the case then you’ve probably had difficulty following a coherent argument this far so I can call you all nincompoops with no fear of repercussions.

It’s impossible to write anything objective because that would imply that it is entirely untainted by bias and our biases (or experiences if you prefer) are what give shape to our opinions. Try and write something coherent that isn’t sourced from an opinion of some kind, I dare you. Answers on a tattoo. And science is the product of human assumptions and inductions so no help there.

All of this means that our reactions to theatre are already pre-determined by everything else in our lives and that the next show you see will directly effect your subsequent opinions of every other play and every other thought you ever have pending a lobotomy. Which might or might not be reassuring, but it does lead to two interesting conclusions.

Firstly, as no two people can ever lead exactly the same life, no two sets of opinions will ever be exactly the same. If you’re doubtful think of an opinion you have and then spend the necessary 48 seconds on the internet looking for a counter-opinion. A counter-opinion that will probably be badly punctuated and possibly in the minority, but an opinion nonetheless. And it’s valid because, secondly, no one person’s opinion can ever be said to be more right than another’s because then you’d be discriminating based on accident of birth and you’re a right bastard if you do that (my abusive step-father was a racist).

But wait Richard! If all these things are subjective then why are we constrained by morality and law? Throw off the shackles of humanity! Anarchy reigns! Bring cake! As much as I’d love to see ideologically confused drama students charging across Scarborough beach with flaming torches screaming this at the top of their lungs, it’s not quite right (oops!). It’s highly practical, us being the raging socialites that we are, to agree on some social contract where wrongs against persons are matched with compensation of some sort. So we have courts, juries, judges and so forth to decide what rights should be restricted and wrongs punished. It’s not perfect, it’s not objective and it doesn’t always work but it’s necessary.

There is no such necessity in the arts. Critics are not needed to pass or condemn shows because of social obligations to protect against wrongs. I’ve seen some eye-meltingly bad shows, but I’ve never felt morally wronged by one. The critic’s opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s. They might be well-read, learned, have years of theatrical knowledge, but the reaction and expression, ‘Fucking ace!’ is as valid a response as an eloquent thesis on the matter. That’s not to say that one won’t be infinitely more satisfying and interesting to read than the other, but that doesn’t make it any more true. Grasshopper.

All of this might seem obvious to everyone, so why do people care so much about what one person writes in a review? It does my fucking head in every Fringe when people in shows go batshit mental over reviews. Especially when they claim they don’t care and then lock themselves away weeping, smashing mirrors and wondering why everyone hates them because one person took issue with a part of their performance. It doesn’t matter that this one person’s opinion may be totally at odds with every other audience member, or that they’re naturally biased against physical theatre because they were raped by a monkey in a leotard, if it’s in print it must be more right than spoken word.

Then there are the critics. Opinionated, egotistical freaks who can’t and therefore teach, who believe that, just because they have a style of communicating their feelings that their editor likes, they are therefore the High Judges of contemporary art (the bad ones anyway).

Noises Off! is a great place to see these things taking effect. Every day there are a plethora of reviews, comments and opinions, no two ever being precisely the same. Some are well-written, some are offensive, all of them are valid and none of them are right. There are two NOFF elements that make it unique. Firstly the editorial control is set at minimum so every expression and thought can be shared and secondly there is no star system because any idiot who thinks that a theatrical experience can be distilled into a rating from one to five is a producer desperate to sell a show.

If the review serves any purpose for the performer it is as a mirror to their own insecurities. They should know intuitively if a comment is accurate about their feelings towards their performance, for them a review may raise questions but never provide answers. For the reader a review is at best enjoyable to read and a possible barometer of whether they might enjoy something. And personally as a critic writing a review is about the joy of the literary exercise.

Sometimes I wake up, look back on something I’ve written and think, ‘Maybe that was a bit harsh’. Then I argue myself to thinking that it’s OK because it doesn’t matter and anyone who takes what I mean to be anything but senseless expression of my own personal bias is mistaken and possibly in favour of censorship, the Nazis. Then I forget about it and move on to the next show. I’ve got a job to do here.

Elehant's Graveyard Review

Lazy. Why bother getting a cast, sand, some versatile blocks and a budget banjo White Stripes if the main focus, the piece de resistance, the elephant in the room if you will, is totally absent from the proceedings? I could barely contain my total rage at the fact that the cast were going to TELL us about the hanging of an elephant instead of SHOWING us. In fact I didn’t contain my rage. I dripped blood from my ears on their precious rake as a result of the vastness of this slight to the supposed credulity of the audience.

Oh sure, everyone can visualise an elephant being lynched by a crane, it’s the clown character that people are going to have difficulty with… LAZY.

And don’t come at me with the argument that it would be impossible to stage. I’ve seen a film where a circus elephant learns to fly with its ears, so don’t tell me what can and can’t be achieved if your ambitions are high enough.

Time and time again I squinted my mind’s eye as tight as I could so as to truly get an impression of a five-ton elephant being asphyxiated but I was thwarted at every turn by the terminable knowledge that I was just looking at an empty patch of air. An empty patch of air that the actors occasionally patted and talked to, like that was going to make a difference.

No Wonder was wondrous, Vowel Play contained no vowels, Normal was anything but, Return to the Silence was loud, and Elephant’s Graveyard doesn’t have a real fucking elephant in it. I’m not even going to bother with the Last Yak. I’m fed up of being lied to, expected to do all the hard work of visualising the central concept because the cast are too LAZY to get off their arses and do some fundraising so that they can, say, buy an elephant and hang it from the rafters. But this… words can’t express how upset and angered I am. It’s their loss though, the American symbolism was entirely lost on me as a result of their continued refusal to surprise us at the last minute with a real life elephant crushing a man’s head like a melon. The elephant is the emblem of the Republican party. Is this significant? We may never know. Next time do it right by stringing up an elephant or at least stoning a rabbit.

Never Enough Review

Last year’s Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen of Strict Machine fame return to the Festival this year with Never Enough. Where Strict Machine dealt with women in the workplace, Never Enough tackles that other life-essential, sexual desire. So they’ve also brought a boy along with them in the form of Marc Graham.

What’s changed from last year is a much richer coherent narrative, a sprinkling of comedy and a more slimming set, all of which have improved on what was already an impressive show. What hasn’t changed though is the bizarre sexual stereotypes. Lizzi and Rebecca are almost caricatures of women; obsessed with men, food and racked with insecurities, both scheming like hell against the other. Will doesn’t fair any better, being self-deceptive to the point of vacuity.

The light-heartedness and humour of the piece goes along way to justifying these moments, stereotypes being the bread and butter of audience recognition and knowing laughs, but it feels unsatisfying to watch such honest expression of emotion in the actor’s physical movements that doesn’t translate into believable characters.

It isn’t until the last third of the play, when Lizzi starts boiling her proverbial bunnies, that the play dares to go deeper into the psychological oddities and needs of its characters. From here to the end the level of intrigue and ambiguity increases tenfold, we get some thought-provoking ideas on women who suffer abuse and are left to our own conclusions about whether or not the characters have finally found enough together. Which is a piece of luck because they take it to the limit in terms of expecting the audience to come with them for the final push.

Where it’s much more difficult to find fault with Never Enough is in the moments of physical expression. All three of the cast have a naturalness to their movement that, while not professionally trained, is technically precise and incredibly emotive. The way they flow, twist and move totally embodies their character. Every step is of significance, each turn aims to develop the piece in some way. It is a device that shows us how the characters are feeling with such clarity as to render the spoken sections needless. Stand-out moments would have to be the selection of perfect women Will ponders (ending in the line, ‘No that’s not it’) and the painting of Lizzi’s body back and blue as she expresses her desire to be touched, even if it means being beaten and subdued.

The character niggles and extensive dialogue sections are distracting, but that doesn’t deter from the fact that Never Enough’s strengths, the physical skills of Greenland, Goalen and Graham, their energy and total commitment, its sense of humour and final willingness to have a closer look at its characters, eclipse its weaknesses.

P.S. I know it’s cruel and unnecessary to mention it, but at one point one of the actors exited the stage and smacked their head into one of the pictures, which proceeded to swing about wildly for a few minutes. I only mention it because I loved the moment. Slapstick is my other favourite form of physical theatre, y’see.

Blurred Vision

The Festival is having a weird effect on my perception. I keep getting the feeling that I’m seeing double. Faces, names, places, they all keep repeating themselves in front of my eyes. I hallucinate shows that my deluded brain tells me I’ve seen before. Am I going insane? Has the crushing, exhausting pressure of sleep deprivation and misguided alcohol consumption finally cracked my tiny little head? Or are eight out of the twelve shows really from the same four universities? The pink elephant that keeps following me around assures me that it’s the latter.

Even out of those with a feeble single entry, Dartington are Festival staples and University of Hull’s Never Enough is basically the new and improved Strict Machine of last year. Meanwhile, despite a year’s absence, Edinburgh’s Last Yak is a fully-automated Haozkla redux fitted with surface-to-air missiles.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed either; last year there was a Judges’ Commendations award for Promoting Student Theatre that went to York, Warwick, Nottingham and Sheffield. An award that was a bizarrely unnecessary ‘Thanks for turning up. Again.’ gesture, and also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the Festival is fed by a thin drip of student bodies.

This isn’t meant to undermine the quality of the shows that are on this week, nor am I trying to second-guess the selection process. Choosing what you think are the best student shows and what would best represent the Festival is undoubtedly a nightmare, and if the best shows happen to come from the same universities then so be it. But why are we being treated to the same companies doing plays that are conceptually identical to the shows they’ve done in previous years? Either there are no better examples of puppetry and physical theatre in existence out there or they’re just not being seen.

Under the pressure of Arts Council shenanigans at NSDF08 the question was asked about what NSDF could do to reach out to a wider range of students. Now a year on and that appears to have been forgotten. When the cast of Herons tell you that they only discovered NSDF by accident and that they wish they could have submitted shows the previous three years it can’t help but confirm the nagging thought that there’s a whole wealth of inspiring student theatre that we’re not privy to.

I hesitate to say that we’re owed some kind of explanation as to why there’s such a thin selection of shows because there isn’t necessarily anyone to blame. But the distorted representation and the still widespread ignorance of the existence of NSDF among the wider student body have to be openly addressed by someone higher up, one of those official types who organise these things, even if it is to say, ‘The quality student theatre is limited to a small range of places and that’s just the way it is.’ Then at least we can look at what those places are doing well and how other student bodies could learn from that.

In the meantime I’ve decided to cut cheese out of my diet and see if that clears stuff up.

Tub Review

If Tub signifies anything it’s that human civilisation has officially run out of viable metaphors for love. It’s love, OK? That’s what the bathtub represents, that’s what Woman (Olivia Vinall) is drowning in, that’s what she’s searching for deep down, that’s what the repeated statements and questions are all about. There, twenty minutes of your precious life saved. If you want to experience the play yourself fill a bathtub up with water, drop some random items in there and spend twenty minutes staring at a photo of an ex-loved one, weeping as you half-heartedly masturbate and try to remember the good times.

‘It’s not there. Is it?’ the play asks in a totally non-pretentious way. Yes, it is there. It’s there from the start. Just because you take 20 minutes to finish your sentences doesn’t mean it isn’t patently obvious from the off what it is you’re trying to say. It’s bound to be about love or some other ‘deep’ emotion because it’s conceptual student drama and making it about the worsening economic situation in Burkina Faso would be stupid.

Tub takes the form of ambiguous statement from Woman followed by ambiguous statement from Man (Matthew Hassall) followed by blackout then rinse and repeat, possibly with an extra line of dialogue or perhaps a glare if it’s a good four seconds. It builds at a frustratingly slow pace, by the time the actors get to the end the audience are already there, tapping their feet and looking at their watches, while those that care feel uneasy about the fact that Woman has been physically forced by Man to take his love.

Is Man real? Is it all in her mind? Is he the Man she really loves? The actors haven’t given the audience anywhere near enough material to make us ponder these questions, let alone come up with answers. It’s totally shallow, but no less deadly for that. It’s possible to drown in an inch of water after all.

Full credit though has to go to Bathtub, which played its part with professionalism and aplomb. From its opening retching up of Woman to the fact that it managed to hide all those items so cunningly away in its enamel belly, it never once seemed phased or put off by the fact that props were being pulled out of its arse like it was a device in a Paul Daniels magic show. Instead it proved itself to be a valuable central addition to the piece. Would the show have suffered much if the actors had slipped out during a blackout and the audience were left to sit and enjoy the gentle sloshing sound of the water? Doubtful.

No Wonder Review

Your child asking where babies come from must be a nightmare question for any parent. Your child bursting out of a wardrobe while you and your husband are playing dress-up sex as Peter Pan and Alice, sending your startled crack-high husband out of a window and into a coma is a recipe for emotional disaster in every thinkable way. It’s the repercussions from this tragic event, the preceding reasons and subsequent guilt, that we see from the view point of Alison, sitting by her husband’s hospital bed, and Luke, a child not yet in his teens trying to understand what happened to his dad.

The power of No Wonder lies in its imagery; the three characters dressed in black who sit at the back and provide snippets of characters, visually striking moments and haunting voiceovers. They do it by using the most basic of props and never in a way that attempts to dominate the theatricality. But, most importantly, every visual moment is coherent and done for a constructive reason. So often it feels like a group have decided to include an idea for no reason other than it looks nice, tending to gloss over the fact that it’s misleading and confusing to the audience. In No Wonder it always felt that decisions were made because they would add to the story and underlining themes.

It seems obvious, but it’s what makes the difference between a succession of visually interesting moments and a compelling narrative whole that rewards initial interest with final satisfaction. The true significance of Luke tumbling out of a wardrobe filled with porn magazines and cuddly toys from various fairy tales isn’t fully revealed until the end, but more and more during the play we are given clues, references, that elucidate the emotional trauma, and the loss of innocence, that Luke and Alison have suffered. Never, however, in an obvious way. We are left to piece it together ourselves, but No Wonder expertly gives us the shape of the pieces through the imagery and shows us the picture on the box through the underlying theme of fairy tales. Imagine that visual metaphor actually working and you’re close.

If there’s a tension between No Wonder’s imagery and the nature of the story it is trying to tell then that tension manifests itself in the form of the language. Alison doesn’t talk as her character actually would, Luke certainly doesn’t talk like a young child would. The language is at times over-laden with metaphors and stories, almost to the point of being self-indulgent and distracting. For the majority though the script gets the important bits right, thanks mainly to the conviction and understanding which Asha Bhatt as Alison and especially Edward Franklin as Luke bring to their roles. Their development is never rushed but, again, carefully plotted.

Opinion will be divided on this play based around how much you can stomach a simile and whether you enjoy stage imagery or not. If you do, then this is a carefully crafted and elegantly executed piece. If you don’t then you may wonder what all the fuss is about.

When Dicks Strike

Sometimes I absolutely love students. Occasionally I question the depths of my cynicism, whether my utter commitment to doubting and undermining whatever message someone is trying to sell me is perhaps a tad obsessive and unnecessary. And then an event like the Opening Ceremony happens and my faith is restored. Yes, I realise, there are others who don’t react well to self-important patronising pricks who fuck about on the stage like it’s an Open Mic Night at the Queen Vic, I am not alone.

It’s fair to say that you won’t find a much more unimpressed audience than students and professionals outside of a Soviet show trial but it’s hardly inspirational stuff when certain fevered egos speak down to a group of students, who are sitting cross legged on the floor like they’re back in fucking primary school, and arouse not the expected merriment and laughter but squirming and barely repressed urges to rip out their own tendons.

I’m not going to name names because there’s absolutely no need. Every person in the audience who writhed or muttered ‘Fucking hell…’ under their breath knows who I’m talking about. The people on stage who tried their best not to stare open-mouthed at the offensive pun abortions that splattered on to the stage time and time again know who I’m talking about. The person(s) who I’m talking almost certainly knows who I’m talking about (or herbout) because they’d have to be a senseless incompetent not to realise, after the third joke plummeted nose first into the audience, that the ‘Oi! Oi! Did you kids know that joining two words together can make a humorous pun?’ style of humour was at best badly misjudged and at worst insulting to every person in the room.

I’m going to get in trouble for writing this. I know, I shouldn’t be slagging someone(s) off who’s taken the time out of their(s) busy schedule to get paid to come and teach us about life in the professional world of theatre. But then I remember two years ago the same person(s) referred to Festival-goers as the ‘little people’. I can forgive an unfortunate gaff about liking schools, but when it’s one of a series of head-smashingly dire moments you have to wonder if it’s not all one big ironic self-parody. It’s not. It’s an unprofessional fuck-up that may have made people wonder what exactly it is they’re meant to learn this week.

If you’re one of those paid to be here, more is expected of you. It’s probably not fair, but like I said, it’s an audience of students, if you’re going to conform to stereotypes then you should know that we’re all naturally desensitised and quick to kneejerk reactions. Let’s make a tacit agreement that I thought was there already: you don’t treat us like moronic little people and we won’t respond with vitriolic bile.

Vowel Play Review

Let’s drop the gimmick and see what we’re left with: Four women in objectively bad relationships sit on stools on stage and discuss their sexual experiences in explicit detail. New ground is left firmly unploughed. Let’s insert gimmick: Four women in objectively bad relationships sit on stools on stage and discuss their sexual experiences in explicit detail using only one vowel each. Our conceptions of the rigidity and fluidity of our language are revolutionised, the inner-thoughts of these women are made clearer and everyone gives themselves a pat on the back. Well, not quite.

As far as theatrical gimmicks go this one is interesting, but beyond appreciating the effort that must have gone into constructing the script it serves no other purpose than to get the audience to listen intently for any vowel-related cock-ups (I spotted two: ‘times’ and ‘tried’, but I’m a pernickety bugger). Every show employs a gimmick to some extent, in the case of Vowel Play it’s one that absorbs a lot of audience attention and gives little in return.

True, using only one vowel each gives the characters a certain sound and shape, Beth’s various long o’s fit well with her Scottish accent, while Jess’ clipped i’s give her a stuttering, uncomfortable edge (which probably explains why she says ‘Shit; every other word) and Kim’s a’s are brash, loud and playful but it all comes crashing down with Hannah. While the other three characters try and play down the gimmick by injecting at least some fluidity into their speech, Carey Mackenzie (who is fine with the term ‘dyke’ because ‘lesbian’ has an ‘i’ and an ‘a’ in it) seems all too aware of the conceit and so fires out her lines like she’s trying desperately hard to make them up on the spot. It just highlights what a (un)necessary part of the play the whole vowel thing is.

The bulk of Vowel Play is done in monologue form, understandable given how the opening dialogues make clear how awkward they are to do in this form, and the strength of the women’s emotional feelings and sexual dilemmas is finely portrayed by three out of the four actors (honestly, Mackenzie sounded like she was drifting in and out of a smack-induced coma), but it’s still a thinly veiled attempt to add some staple feminine depth to what is, in the end, a literary exercise and nothing more.

Sad Since Tuesday Review

Angels are odd things. Ethereal beings that fly around the sky and do… what, exactly? Spy on people? Re-enact bombing raids? According to Sad Since Tuesday they carry out the morbid task of collecting the dead. A few snapshots of these collections are shown in the opening moments before the play settles down proper into the story of an angel that falls to Earth on his way to collect a dying baby and ends up trapped in a chicken coop.

Yeah… the plot is best left well alone, what little of it there is. Some moments just don’t make sense, such as rain, the nemesis of all flighty things, being what causes the angel to smash to Earth. Then there’s the suggestion that the angel proceeds to spend the next few years trapped in a chicken coop belonging to the family of the baby he’s meant to collect, the only outside interest in him being a French doctor who is confused by the sound the angel’s heart makes. When the resolution comes it also goes without a trace. Almost ethereal, you might say.

Sad Since Tuesday isn’t about the plot though, it’s about the visual images and moments that the cast create. While lacking the slickness and professionalism of some of the more seasoned shows here, the play is still full of imagination. Be it in the simple yet effective sight of the angels flying or the blue fabric of water on a boat’s oar, the cast never give a potential image the chance of slipping away. Even if we have no interest in the character of the child, the cartoon mask, boots and single glove combination are at least charming to watch.

The performances are erratic (if you’re going to arbitrarily choose an accent at least make it one that all the cast are comfortable with) and, out of the three, Tom Coxon is exemplary. His pathetic (in a good way) attempts to take flight as an angel are crushingly painful to watch and his final moment on the trapeze is a brief demonstration of his natural talent and ability. All the actors contribute, but it is him who, as the centre of the piece, really takes flight (God I hate myself).

Sad Since Tuesday is nice. If that sounds patronising then that’s because it is. Everyone is going to give this show a bit of leeway because it’s an A2 piece and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The cast and crew have shown genuine dedication to the piece and, even if it doesn’t work all the time, it does show a huge amount of promise for future work from each of its contributors.

NSDF Overview

Another year, another Festival. By now your alcohol-ridden brains will have already forgotten all the shows so for your benefit here’s an overview of the Festival.

Before we get going I’d like to take a moment to be a sentimental git. Skip at your leisure.

It’s worth remembering that NSDF is about more than the shows, there’s huge amounts of organisation and logistics that go on behind the scenes that we humble students will never be privy to. Last year the Festival was dominated understandably by Arts Council worries, but this year the workshops, the tone, everything (apart from having five shows discussed in one day) have been spot on and for that vast amounts of credit must go to Holly Kendrick and all those that sail with her. So… yeah, take your credit. For now…

Anyway, here, in Green Route order, are the shows as described to me by the drunk collective voice of the Spa Bar. You might want to put on some of that crap ‘Top Ten Movies Ever!’ countdown music on your iPod now for added drama.

No Wonder was a tale of the death of fairies and why Peter Pan can’t fly anymore (cos the fairies are dead). Elsewhere people in black moved things and spoke deliberately out of sync with the actors on microphones, the dicks.

Normal charted Hitler’s unsuccessful attempts to conquer Germany by slaughtering all its buxom beauties while swans hung about like they were important or something. Nevertheless it was the best play ever (comment of Richard Dennis, University of Edinburgh).

Return to the Silence was impressive for dividing audiences completely between those who thought it was an incredible, precise and professional piece of theatre that made them weep uncontrollably and those that thought it was an incredible, precise and professional piece of theatre that left them dead inside. That’ll be the ol’ neurons playing up.

Vowel Play took letters and did things with them. Dirty, unspeakable things that made some audience members blush. It was also the first show to bring that word ‘stereotypes’ to the fore. The joy.

Herons was about racism. And stereotypes. Again. Even though it wasn’t. Confusing; but not as confusing as trying to build a wall with only 27 bricks. Leggy birds were also in the minority, shame. But no matter what else you fucking cunts think, that Edward Franklin is a fucking legend.

Elephant’s Graveyard didn’t have an elephant. We’ve been over this already.

Never Enough had physical theatre. Some students discovered that their predisposition to hating physical theatre ‘just because’ had been as retarded and ignorant as they always feared it might be. Some bottoms were pushed and it all ended happily √° trois.

The Last Yak had animals in it. These animals had a God. This God was a big hairy thing that kept people warm. Animals died and the RSPCA were called to the scene. A potent metaphor for the struggle of human existence.

The Wake started with a dead man coming out of a coffin. Thinking that this was the start of the long-prophesised zombie uprising I proceeded to soil myself and retreat to my fallout bunker. You can never be too careful. Word on the street says some nutter got up from the audience and started harassing the performer. Kids these days…

Tub was loved by many for its simplicity and poignancy. Sadly that was lost on me. Even NOFF editor Andrew Haydon said I had no heart because of this. I’d cry if I had a bottle of whisky to hug.

Sad Since Tuesday delicately and tenderly advocated killing children. But Tom Coxon has got the bruises on his body to prove that it was in self-defence.

And then there was Me and My Friend. This time last year I had ended the Festival with 4.48 Psychosis and a performance so heart-renderingly brutal in its examination of the human psyche that on leaving the auditorium I uncontrollably burst into tears. Why bother saying what everyone else is going to be saying anyway?

Umm… so that’s it. Muchos gracias to every single show this year, each one had aspects that more than justified it being here and being showcased. And the cajones to perform them to such a standard under that pressure is always remarkable. Thank you as well to all those I’ve shared conversations with about the shows and my views on them, especially those who I disagreed with. It’s the only way I learn.

In conclusion: I’ve been a cunt, but freedom of speech’s a bitch.