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Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wakefield Drama Festival 2011

This may be quite a niche post but I thought I'd blog of my experiences in the last week as I attended the Wakefield Drama Festival 2011 at Theatre Royal Wakefield. The premise of the festival was pretty simple: seven plays in seven nights. Simple yet terrifying I'd imagine - for all involved. At the end of every performance the adjudicator gave his verdict and picked his winners at the end of the week.

Sunday - One Fiona, Two

This was a farce. Don't worry, it was meant to be. That said, I'm not certain I enjoyed it. The story was essentially that of Martyn, a thriller writer who owns a hotel on a Greek island and who has a lot of affairs with women called Fiona and learns something of a lesson. This was only the second production of the play and the writer and director also played a small role in the piece.

There were some excellent performances, but they were mainly from the secondary cast. One woman in particular, Rozi Afferson playing Bunty was magnificent. It's not often you can tell from the very first moment two characters appear on stage together that one has something of an unrequited love for the other one. Equally, there aren't many actresses who can pull off drunkenness with believability and make it downright hilarious. Then there was the recovery from the alcohol during a scene with barely any dialogue. It was pure genius: crisps dropping all over the place, being swept up and replaced on the table; peanuts being doused in Alka-Seltzer then drained; po-pourri being mistaken for Bombay mix. That scene was honestly worth the entry fee alone.

However, I did have some major reservations about the rest of it, some of which were picked up by the adjudicator. The pace wasn't speedy enough for a farce. Momentum slipped away just as it should have been building and this wasn't helped by strange performances from several of the leads. I say 'strange' because I fully believe they were playing the roles as written but it just didn't work well enough for me. The lead actor was miscast, I believe. I know he was supposed to be an unlikeable cad but he missed the moments of humanity which could have made him at least understandable as a character. His comedic value was overdone and a lighter touch would've helped the play as a whole. The base material was decent but it could do with some external input, and maybe some fresh faces in certain roles. As one final criticism (which the adjudicator shared), the set was full of doors and was perfect for a farce. However, the set wobbled more than Crossroads and I don't think that was intentional.

Monday - Blood Brothers

It's worth pointing out this was the play and not the musical. As such, I was a little apprehensive about how the drama would successfully take the place of the songs. I needn't have worried. This was an excellent performance. For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it can be summed up easily enough: a downtrodden woman gives one of her twins to her infertile employer. The two boys meet and become friends, despite their class differences, though they are torn apart by their differences and their love for the same woman.

I had very few criticisms of the acting in this one. Even the bit parts of the policewoman and the milkman were amusing and well-cast. The two mothers, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, were delicately played and understated when necessary. As for the boys, I was very impressed by two grown-up men playing the roles of seven then fourteen year-olds with apparent ease. It was something which could easily have looked ridiculous but the actors drew you into the personalities rather than the striking physical discrepancy between an adult and a boy. Equally, Poppy-Jo Lumley playing Linda managed the transition from child to woman to mother with ease. I can't fault the interpretation of any of the characters.

A couple of things which the adjudicator picked up on (which I agreed with) were the sometimes strained use of the minimal set and the disaster surrounding the gunshot at the end of the play. Firstly, the permanent set consisted of a table, two chairs and a sideboard which weren't constantly used. Occasionally, when characters sat at the table it boxed the action into two tight a corner. Secondly, the sound effect as the gun went off in the last scene was too strong and helped invoke laughter in the audience. That was a terrible occurrence because the scene up until then had been emotionally charged and brilliantly acted. It diluted the effects of the climax a little.

One thing I feel I must pick up on is the adjudicator's statement that the play feels dated. Admittedly, there are sections which jar but, overall, I found the play as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. After all, the themes of recession, class, social mobility, jealousy and anger resonate as deeply in contemporary society. I honestly think that it's a play with an active lesson and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

Tuesday - The Bronte Boy

I used this play as one of my excuses to go to the Wakefield Drama Festival this year. It's no secret on this blog that I'm a nineteenth-century nerd but that could've left me massively disappointed with the offering from Encore Theatre. Fortunately, the actual content of the play was extraordinary and the delivery matched it. The play tells the tale of Branwell Bronte, the brother of the famous sisters who never quite reached his potential and died before his siblings. It was written by a local author and the script was phenomenal. It isn't easy to make Victorian dialogue interesting to the modern audience but a combination of a great script and accomplished actors made that criticism obsolete.

There truly wasn't a stand-out performance in this piece: they were all equally outstanding. As Branwell, Warwick St. John delicately made us care about a character who was destroying himself and negatively influencing the lives of those around him. His first scene with Asadour Guzelian as Patrick Bronte was emotionally charged and set the tone for the entire play. Equally, his final scene was haunting as he reads aloud letters that characterise what he sees as his failed existence. The actresses playing the sisters were all fantastic and I wouldn't like to single any of them out above the others.

The problems of the play stemmed from technical, not artistic issues. There were noticeable lighting errors (or just bizarre choices) and the table centre stage was cumbersome at times, alienating characters and limiting where the action could take place. Several scenes were pushed to the far of the stage as they alternated with action taking place in the centre. A combination of lighting problems, sound effect issues and a straight-on angle caused problems for some in the audience. However, none of the technical problems ruined the overall effect of the play for me. It was powerful and it was haunting. An exceptional night of the festival.

Wednesday - The Moonbather

This was a Last of the Summer Wine script, written by the wonderful Roy Clarke. As such, it was impeccable and couldn't really fail. The audience went with a set idea of what they were going to get and I'm pretty sure they got it. I was in hysterics throughout and began choking during the last scene because I'd been laughing so much.

The trickiest part of this play was presenting characters people knew vividly without impersonating the famous actors. I think it also expected you to go with knowledge of the series. If you'd taken a foreign friend or someone who'd been living in a bunker for the last forty years they might not have enjoyed it as much as someone familiar with the programme. There were titters of recognition as each character appeared on stage and a certain knowledge of what was to come. That said, the actors did a tremendous job of portraying their characters. Paul Haley was Compo, no question. Nora Batty was there with her curlers and Cleggy was as stuttering as anxious as I'd expect him to be. If I have one criticism of the cast it would be that it was a little too large, but that stems from the adaptation and a desire to please the audience more than anything else. One scene wonders Wally, Sid and Marina could certainly have been eliminated but the sense of community and fond feeling they inspired was possibly worth their inclusion.

The set was the most detailed of the week and yet so apt. Most of the action takes place in Cleggy's living room which is furnished just as you'd expect Normal Clegg to furnish his living room. It was intricate and detailed. A black curtain came down in front of the house for scenes involving other characters and this was very neatly done. The set complimented the action and gave it a sense of the 'real', even as the play itself descended into pure farce. It didn't pretend to be more than it was: it was a funny night out that certainly gave the audience an enjoyable time.

Thursday - Warrant for a Deed of Blood

This was the one I was looking forward to the most. In fact, this was the entire reason I decided to go to the festival in the first place. The story was based on the true story of Constance Kent, the Road murderer. This investigation was covered in-depth in Kate Summerscale's fantastic book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I went into this anticipating a lot, because the source material was sensational and I didn't see how they could go wrong. But, on several levels, they did.

The logical place to start, so I thought, was with the murder itself. Instead they introduced the puzzles leading up to the murder beforehand, with the discovery of the body actually happening between acts one and two. This disappointed me on several levels: firstly, I think far too much time was sent documenting what could easily have been shown in flashbacks (as happened for a fair part of act two anyway); secondly, I felt cheated that we as an audience had been denied the discovery of the body, mainly because, despite the tension at the end of act one, there was no confirmation a crime would occur. If you didn't have knowledge of the case beforehand you might've struggled with the sudden leap from irritating child to dead one. Equally, if you had knowledge of the case you may have found yourself frustrated with the presentation - both structurally speaking and in terms of the cast.

I was most impressed by the acting of older members of the cast. Sue Murray as Sarah Cox was phenomenal. I almost forgave the fact that there were some entirely inappropriate songs in the piece because she was the one singing them. Equally, the actors playing Dr Stapleton, Samuel Kent and Elizabeth Gough approached their parts in the right manner. However, the children, Constance and William, were either miswritten or misinterpreted by the actors. They seemed to act a lot younger than they actually were and the hereditary madness, a vital component of the story, was expressed in chaotic and frantic scenes. Anyone who has read anything relating to Constance Kent will know that she was seen at the time as being reserved and thoughtful with bouts of anger. This misinterpretation, on whatever level it occurred, presented me with the major fault of the play: the names could easily have been changed and it made an entirely new piece because the majority of what was seen was conjecture from the time and sensationalism. The case itself was sensational and didn't need the enhancement of the rumours. A couple of other things I would add are, firstly, that there was a musician on stage who did add to the mood very effectively at times. However, he got in the way. He was clearly visible from the left side of the theatre, meaning that some of the monologues were diluted by the fact this musician was grinning over at the side. Finally, the use of a puppet and a woman controlling it to represent Saville seemed an odd way of demonstrating his tittle-tattling. While it was well done for what it was, I don't think it was necessary to the piece.

Friday - Men of the World

I was quite dubious about this, mainly due to the small cast and the idea that the three actors would be impersonating characters from a coach holiday. I thought it would be difficult to follow and seem rather contrived. Well, it wasn't difficult to follow at all, the sparse garments adorned by every separate character were differentiation enough. Perhaps it did seem contrived, but it was supposed to. The audience could suspend their disbelief because the characters themselves felt so real - even when it was a bloke with a beard wearing a headscarf. The writing was perfect and the three actors pulling off multiple parts were phenomenal.

There were too many little characters to go through them all. However, the three bus drivers framing and telling the story were Larry, Stick and Frank (female). Larry was due to retire after the journey they proceed to tell us about but he didn't. What the rest of the play explains is why he couldn't, and it captures the relationships between the drivers perfectly. There's a moment towards the end of act two when the tension that has been brewing between Larry and Stick throughout boils over into a shouting match that was perfectly pitched. I fully believed the anger between the two men because it had been fantastically foreshadowed. Then again, it was a John Godber script so I'm not surprised at the quality of the writing. Out of all the plays this week, this was the one that I could have stayed watching for hours more. I felt extremely comfortable with the characters, as though I'd been mates with them for years.

The set was sparse, with all character equipment being kept in three boxes behind the drivers' seats. They didn't distract and meant the actors didn't constantly disappear off-stage to change character. The lighting was used successfully to segregate the action but the music was the exceptional part of the staging for me. It was used to fill interludes as one character became another and it always tried to fit perfectly with what was going on. We got excerpts from The King and I and Sister Act along with standards such as 'Show Me The Way To Go Home' and a little Chopin. All in all, the music added to the play, rather than distracted from it. A thoroughly enjoyable evening to take your mind from any troubles.

Saturday - Glorious

This told the true tale of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst opera singer in the world. Knowing the script was written by the fabulous Peter Quilter (of End of the Rainbow fame) made me sure I was in for a fantastic evening. Quilter has an extremely delicate way of mixing the comic with the poignant and that shone through in this remarkable performance.

The set was used effectively, a nice apartment setting for the opening scene which set the tone for the whole piece. The adjudicator commented at the end that there were more stage-hands helping with the changes than actors. It all worked, though, especially given that while the changes were taking place a newscast giving a flavour of the period blared over the speakers. I also couldn't fault the acting tonight. They got laughs when necessary but there was always a sense of the pain underneath, especially in the case of pianist, Cosme McMoon played by Steve Williams, whose grimaces deserved their own award. The company was actually from Bristol, the furthest afield by far of any companies this week. It was certainly worth them making the journey. That was a play I'm never going to forget and one I wouldn't hesitate seeing again if the opportunity arose.


This week was certainly one heck of an experience for me. It was intense, informative and, for the most part, highly enjoyable. I'd like to thank the staff at the theatre for being so helpful and accommodating all week and for putting on some excellent food after each performance for the week-long pass holders. I'd also like to thank the woman who gave me a lift home on Friday night (and I'm afraid whose name I never caught) and give a wave to @YorkshireLawMan who I ended up sat next to on Friday. It was bizarre sitting down and having someone ask if I'm Lucy, having been tweeting at each other for several months.

My personal choice for play of the week would've been The Bronte Boy. It was fresh, written by a local writer and was suitably haunting. In the end, Glorious took both the audience award and the first prize from the adjudicator. I believe Men of the World took second while The Moonbather took third but I'll correct myself if I'm wrong. It has been a very long week! But I did enjoy it and I know that they smashed the box office record for attendance during the festival in this, it's eleventh year. I'm hoping next year they can rival that and I hope I'll be there to watch.


Annie said...

Now that took serious stamina. I'm a life long theatre buff and an ex-drama student and I couldn't have made it through seven nights I don't think. It's good to know that there are places far away from the West End glitz and glamour where the real spirit of theatre is still going strong.

CharmedLassie said...

I must admit, I'm pretty glad it's over! The idea that I don't have to go out tonight is actually quite exciting. I was a little apprehensive when I didn't enjoy the first night but I'm glad I stuck with it.