I should note that while this year was billed as the 'Jubilee Drama Festival' it's pretty much by chance the two coincided. Aside from standing at the national anthem, there was no Jubilee-related activity. That's why I've billed this as the 'Wakefield Drama Festival 2012'. This is the second year I've attended, thoroughly enjoying 2011 after a shaky start. I think this year felt a little more gruelling than last year but it did have some heavier productions on, adding to the overall atmosphere. I do know that attendance dropped this year - that may have been a consequence of people not wanting to buy seven night passes that interfered with the Jubilee celebrations or they might have been put off by this delightful rain we've been experiencing but, nevertheless, I'd urge people to attend next year if they can. The standard of some productions this year was phenomenal.
Sunday - Terra Nova
This felt like a grim one to start the week on - a dramatisation of the final days of Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Heavy subject matter indeed but relieved slightly by occasional touches of humour and some manipulation of reality. Throughout the play, we follow Scott's wandering mind as he recalls his wife and engages in fantastical conversations with his South Pole adversary, Roald Amundsen, as he tries to keep his team alive. It was at times difficult to watch a story that we know the tragic ending of but Simon J. Vardakis as Captain Scott put in a wonderfully believable performance of a man struggling with his responsibilities and making errors of judgement along the way. The rest of the cast were equally as believable, coping with the time and reality shifts with remarkable dexterity.
Technically, the stage was well-assembled and it won 'Best Stage Presentation' at the end of the week. It even looked cold, covered in white sheeting with two raised sections which allowed Scott's conversations with his wife and Amundsen to be separated from the action. I couldn't fault the script nor, really, anything. The final scenes were so harrowing that I was close to tears, something that's never happened to me in a theatre before. All in all, this was another exceptional production from the company that provided the overall winner last year.
Monday - The 39 Steps
An adaptation of the Hitchcock film with only four actors played to the ultimate comedic effect - what could be finer? Well, not much. The key to this play is for the actors to connect with the audience and they managed it beautifully, particularly the two 'clowns' who had to play dozens of roles between them and jointly took home the 'Best Actor' prize at the end of the week.
There were some ingenious uses of staging to get laughs, including an iconic door that was pushed repeatedly around the stage to hilarious effect. In addition, a wonderful screen at the back of the stage depicted scenes too difficult to construct on stage - a plane crash, the escape across a loch (Nessie made an appearance at this point). Occasionally, however, the tension slipped a bit and a few sections became repetitive and slow. There are only so many times you can laugh at the same thing. There were, though, some fantastic character-switches for the clowns which the audience certainly appreciated. I think the finale set in the London Palladium was well-orchestrated, although the last scene of the piece felt as though it overstayed its welcome. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable evening with some good performances.
Tuesday - Outside Edge
I think the first thing to say about this production is that there seemed to be a catastrophe pre-curtain. An ambulance at the rear entrance twenty minutes before the performance is never a good thing and I think it may have been the director who was taken off. That probably explains some of the issues I had with the play.
There was a fair bit of line-fluffing, including one incidence of the prompter having to dive in. That threw me off a bit but, to give credit to the cast, they recovered well every time there was an issue. Some of the characters were over-played but I suspect they were written that way. The play itself (written in 1979) felt a little dated from time to time but the interplay of the characters and the fundamental natures of the people involved shone through. My favourite performance came from Debby Pickering as Miriam, the long-suffering wife of cricketing captain Roger. She played the nattering, obedient wife to perfection in the first act then, as things began to fall apart as she realised her husband's lies, she morphs into a brittle, sarcastic woman struggling to hold it all in. The action takes place at a cricket club as the players compete against another team amidst failing relationships and injury. Another few honourable mention for acting must go to Helen Binns as Maggie and Chris Harrison as Kevin, both of whom were endearing and funny. A few actors seemed to struggle with the horrible natures of their characters - Ginny and Dennis being two examples - and the play could've done with the nudge from more tension in this respect. However, I liked the building up of Miriam's suspicions throughout. This play is running for a few days at the end of June and it's certainly worth a chance, especially if the cast have taken on board some of the adjudicator's opinions.
Wednesday - Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
This play is based on the real-life experiences of a hostage in the Lebanon. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting this to be one of the highlights of the week: a static set, three characters imprisoned, pain and suffering didn't assist in making me look forward to it. How wrong I was.
I can only remember once being so torn apart by a play and that was when I ventured to London to see Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me was claustrophobic, heart-breaking yet the tension was broken by moments of light-relief as the three prisoners tried to forget the horrific situation they were in. The 'tennis match' between Michael (Derek Smith) and Edward (Simon Reece) was hilarious and the actors should be commended for their ability to switch from despair to humour in the blink of an eye. All in all, I'd imagine the actors were thoroughly exhausted at the end of it but they performed remarkably throughout - there wasn't a slip that I could discern. Something the adjudicator remarked on at the end of the play was that the audience didn't feel as though they were watching a play and that was certainly true - there was no artificiality at all and the actors really became the characters. There was a good use of music throughout, starting with 'Someone To Watch Over Me' (of course) sung by Ella Fitzgerald. However, the most heartbreaking incidence of music came from Alistair Cheetham as Adam, singing 'Amazing Grace' and bringing the curtain down on act one. There are no words to describe the effect that had on the audience. When the lights came back on no one wanted to move. As you can probably tell, I don't have a bad word to say about this production.
Thursday - Charley's Aunt
For me, there's a distinct difference between playing a production written in the Victorian era where the Victorians take the mickey out of themselves and playing it as a contemporary company taking the mickey out of the Victorian era. I realise I have a rather deep interest in this as a student of Victorian literature and it well may be that the flaws that presented themselves to me in this production were invisible to everyone else. Nonetheless, I was disappointed by something I hoped to enjoy.
The play tells the farcical tale of Jack and Charley, two young men hoping to propose to Kitty and Amy respectively before the girls leave for Scotland. Charley's aunt, whom he's never met, is supposed to be coming for lunch and that strikes the boys as the perfect opportunity to speak to the girls. At the last minute the aunt writes that she won't be attending, leaving poor Fancourt Banbury in a predicament as his friends force him to dress up and pretend to be Charley's aunt. Unfortunately, the 'aunt' soon finds herself with two suitors and things take another turn for the worse when the real aunt arrives. I suppose another one of my problems with this one was the over-acting present, especially in act one. Yes, it's a farce but the best farces stem from the dialogue and characterisation and, while the script was good enough, the actors seemed compelled to over-play it instead of letting the script speak for itself. I think the younger actors were guiltier of this than the older ones. There was an over-reliance on exaggerated facial expressions which didn't fit with the moment and, while it picked up a little towards the end, the first half dragged immeasurably. One other thing that irritated me - there was a second interval to allow a set change. Given the sparsity of the set, I rather think that could've been accomplished in a black-out with some music playing.
There were some good performances though, particularly J.E. de Tute as Banbury and K.T. Lowe as the butler, Brassett. They at least seemed to embrace their parts without mocking them from a contemporary standpoint and I was delighted when Lowe took home the 'Best Supporting Actor' award at the end of the week. However, I expected to enjoy this one much more than I did, I'm afraid.
Friday - The Glass Menagerie
At around two and a half hours long (plus interval) this one was the lengthiest play of the week and, while I understand why it was put on Friday night, by this stage I think the audience was perhaps too tired for such an intellectual offering. That said, it gripped me throughout, though I do have criticisms of my own.
The staging seemed to be tricky if you were anywhere apart from dead centre stalls. There was a curtain across which revealed a table but, thanks to some props to the left, it impaired the view for some of the audience. I spent scenes watching two people with a third frustratingly out of sight. Nonetheless, the set felt authentic and uncluttered at the front. The production's use of music was excellent, but voices didn't always carry far enough - something which one man loudly commented on during the best scene, only to be shushed by everyone around him. Negatives aside, the actors were fantastic. Clare Foster as Laura Wingfield was remarkable, especially in the romance scene opposite Jack Cotton as Jim. I was enthralled during that scene, literally leaning forward in my seat as the tension between the pair rose and fell. One thing this production did exceptionally well was build an atmosphere. The adjudicator remarked that the atmosphere was too level and gloomy and that Amanda's (Margaret Leigh) moments of hysteria could've been used to alter the pace and, although he did have a point, I don't think it caused too much of a problem for me personally. The four members of the cast worked brilliantly together and I came out of this one touched by the performances. Clare Foster took home the 'Best Actress' award for her efforts, something very much deserved.
Saturday - One Big Blow
This isn't the play to go to if you're looking for realism! Six actors playing lots of different roles between them, it's ostensibly the story of a brass band preparing for a competition but, really, the competition isn't the thing that grabs the audience. The a cappella singing in lieu of an actual band seemed like a bad idea in concept but worked exceptionally well in practice. The additional songs the cast sang were both funny and fitting and the physical performances put in by the cast felt exhausting to the audience. It was a difficult one to keep up with at times, with all the character-switching, but it really didn't matter in the end. This one was an hilarious romp with some ingenious uses of bodies instead of props and some brilliant asides to the audience - one character commenting that he couldn't do anything because he was being a lamp in that scene to name but one. Taking the mickey out of theatrical symbolism whilst also incorporating the audience into the production was brilliant and this was an excellent one to finish the week on - light and frothy after something of a heavy week.
I found this year tougher than last but that may have been due in part to the weather. However, the standard of the drama this year was exceptionally high and it was no surprise to me that Someone Who'll Watch Over Me took both first prize from the adjudicator and the audience award (it was certainly my choice!). Terra Nova was given second prize - thoroughly deserved - while One Big Blow took third. My opinion tailed with the adjudicator's on four awards, which isn't bad going. I can only imagine how difficult the 'Best Actor' award was for the adjudicator given the standard of male acting throughout the week. One thing he mentioned in his summing up, though, was that was there was a distinct lack of important female characters this year. I don't know if I appreciated the male dominance as much as he seemed to in all honesty. However, it did mean that when I came across an outstanding female performance such as Debby Pickering in Outside Edge and Clare Foster in The Glass Menagerie it felt like a special moment.