The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Our Country’s Good (Bedlam: 26 February – 3 March)

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“Bold and disciplined”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Outstanding

Lashings of intelligence here. That and the knowledge that ‘the shoulder blades are exposed at about 100 lashes’. There’s also sand on the stage floor, figuratively blood stained, but handy for gritty effect and for when you want to represent a play as ‘a diagram in the sand’, as proof of what could be and what might be changed for the better whatever the wretched circumstances.

And Lord knows that Australia has been there and done that. In literary terms it’s a swift line of descent: Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’ was published in 1986, Thomas Keneally’s ‘The Playmaker’ in 1987, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good opened at the Royal Court, London, in September 1988. Historically it took eight months for the convict transports to get from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. The action in Wertenbaker’s play – by now surely reckoned to be a modern ‘classic’ – is spread over five to six months. It is Edinburgh University’s official English Literature play of the year and this student production does it proud.

Of course, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ it ain’t. Major Robbie Ross (Amelia Watson) sees to that. He bitterly resents being in such an alien and depraved place, orders floggings for impertinence, and fears that any sign of weakness – ie. kindness – will result in revolt. Arguably it’s the toughest role because he is so singularly awful and Watson has the scowl and the whiplash voice to do it. He is opposed by Governor Arthur Phillip (Matthew Sedman) whose far-seeing humanity guides the play beyond the horror of its opening to its near jubilant close. Wertenbaker indicated that her play end with the ‘triumphant music of Beethoven’s 5th’ but perhaps that was felt to be too much for Bedlam on a freezing evening in February.

What Phillip does do is to require the production of George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by theatre loving 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jacob Baird). The fact that Clark only has two copies of the play and that some of his cast cannot read and that Ross regards him as a sorry excuse for a Marine makes it a tall order to carry out. Baird is well cast as officer class decent but his character is frustrated almost to breaking point, emotionally and sexually. The relief provided by The Recruiting Officer is palpable and is far better for him than pining at his fly buttons for his beloved Betsey Alicia back home.

So, here’s the pre-text of late Restoration comedy within a docudrama, with its 22 strong cast list of gentlemen heroes (2), wise man (1) and villain (1), and the rest (several) as good-for-nothing, not! Robert Sideway (brilliant by Domi Ucar), pick-pocket to the gentry, and glorious ac-tor is a scuttling hoot, establishing her melancholy and rehearsing her bow. He is being flogged on deck when the play begins so it is a defining moment when during the second rehearsal scene he completely upstages a brutal Ross. No such joy for Midshipman Harry Brewer (Gordon Stackhouse) tormented by guilt and by his jealous love for his ‘Duckling’ girl (Anna Swinton). Their time together is raw and explicit and (for young actors) pretty impressive. Tiffany Garnham convinces that her Liz Morden, violent, in chains and born to be hanged, can still be redeemed. Jack McConnell is John Arnscott, transported for life, and so pleased that he can ‘be’ someone else. Erica Belton, speaks wonderfully as Ketch, apprentice hangman, who wants to be an actor because he remembers some players coming to his village in Ireland where they were loved ‘like the angels’. Anna Phillips’ shy Mary Brenham owns a precious and appealing dignity from the start. Anubhav Chowdhury’s Caesar is from Madagascar and you have to wonder at the bad luck that got him into a British penal colony but his French accent and daft woes do provide easy laughs. Hannah Robinson manages to be both upper class twit Campbell and illiterate Dabby, bless her, who never gives up on getting back to the soft rain of Devon.

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Matthew Sedman as Wisehammer and Anna Phillips as Mary, behind. Photo: Louis Caro.

Two characters remain: Wisehammer (Matthew Sedman again) and the Narrator, the Aboriginal Australian. Both command attention but Sedman is outstanding. In this production the Narrator (Sophie Boyle) plays a signature phrase on the violin and her few linked lines are a reminder of the tragic consequences for her people that followed this European ‘entertainment’. Wisehammer, as you can guess, is something else: almost a gentle philosopher, certainly a writer, and Sedman’s careful Northern delivery nail the words, especially his simple Prologue that gives the play its title and it is intoned twice for effect. The fact that Ralph Clark reckons it would give Major Ross apoplexy is a quality judgement.

Our Country’s Good is serious drama and directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley take it seriously. This production is bold and disciplined, barely cut – if at all – and its actors work a demanding script with real attention. Yes, there’s some yelling – you would too if you’re being whipped – and it drowned Wisehammer’s astonishing, ghastly opening description of men and women ‘spewed from their country’. Naval uniform is in short supply and despite its appeal the thrust stage doesn’t work, but the actors being constantly visible, on or ‘off, does; and the onstage set design by Natasha Wood and Bryn Jones of a short mast, sail cloth and crossed spars is all that is needed.

I’m with Governor Phillip’s: ‘We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little’. There’s a conviction worth upholding.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 February)

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Tom at the Farm (Bedlam: 7-10 Feb ’18)

“Intelligent and engaging”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

A dark, brooding affair, Tom at The Farm sees charming city-boy Tom visit his (secret) lover’s family farm in rural Ontario for his funeral, under the guise of having been purely his friend and co-worker. What unfolds is a tale of grief, secrets, identity and duty, akin to the works of Emile Zola, with the tensions between the characters evident upfront, and an intriguing journey ahead as to how each one will play out.

To that end, Michel Marc Bouchard’s script really is delicious serving up a twisting tale of deceit where Tom falls further and further into an elaborate web of lies in order to keep the family happy, though peppered with enough dark humour and sexual tension to make it enthralling on all levels. Asides and textual motifs are used cleverly to capture the sense of inevitability throughout, while the scene in French is simply a stroke of comic genius.

Director Joe Christie does a stellar job in capturing the overall mood of the piece, and attention to detail throughout each scene gives the production an intelligent and engaging quality – everything happens for a reason, and each contributing factor drives the narrative to its gritty resolution. The production team also deserve credit for transforming the Bedlam space into what could easily be believed as a rundown farmhouse, while the other visual and sound effects all contribute well to the psychologically intense nature of each moment.

With grief being such a strong central theme, it’s a tough ask for the student cast to delve into that level of emotional depth, but on the whole they handle it very well. Yann Davies as Tom is barely ever off stage, and steers the character from pillar to punch-bag with electrifying conviction, and Peter Morrison is every inch the guy you love to hate as Francis, oozing with masculinity and a genuinely frightening presence. Matilda Botsford brings a tender and controlled approach to Agatha, capably balanced out by Kathryn Salmond’s irreverent Sara.

For me the only real downfall in this production are the dips in emotional intensity and honesty that generally occur between scenes. Given the changes in dynamics and relationships throughout the play it sometimes takes the actors a little a while to really establish the tone of each new scene and bring us with them to where they are. The style of the production requires a lot from the audience to follow the journey, believe what happens in between each scene and then be present in each moment on-stage moment, and though it’s a tough ride, it is very well worth it in the end. I’d happily go again.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Bedfest 2018: Scotland the Bollocks (Bedlam: 23rd Jan.’18)

Design: EUTC.

If all history lessons were like this, I would know and understand a lot more of my country’s story

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 
 To explore the EUTC’s Bedlam Festival 2018, ‘BedFest‘, we decided to go along to see Ross Baillie’s stand-up routine Scotland the Bollocks, an enthusiastic rendition of stories (in)famous in Scottish history. 

Straight from the word go Baillie is genuine and entertaining, if slightly unorganized at times. He is alone on stage, although he always has his stage manager Huw Jones at hand to help him via a screen in the backgroundWhen Baillie gets a little confused or forgets what he is talking about next, Jones is quick to provide funny pictures, anecdotes and explanations.  

The atmosphere remained relaxed throughout as Baillie told exciting stories of Mary Queen of Scots and ….. of the Bank of England. He engaged with an audience that seemed shocked yet highly amused by his hilariously sarcastic outbursts and at times slightly inappropriate sense of humourI was quite happy as I was not sitting in the front row.  

Baillie questions our national identity as he explores the mishaps and (if this is what we can call it) the ‘series’ of very unfortunate events which have fallen upon Scotland since the beginning of history as we know it. His show is almost a mock Horrible History lesson mixed in with some modern jokes about Trump and Brexit. One of my favourite moments was a make-believe Twitter argument between famous people from the 18th century.  

At times I was unsure if Baillie was genuinely confused or if his disorganisation was indeed part of the act –  either way, although his performance could have been a little more polished, the show worked really well. If all history lessons were like this, I would know and understand a lot more of my country’s story.

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Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 24 January)

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Further than the Furthest Thing (Bedlam, 14 – 18 March’17)

Tiffany Garnham as Mill and Oscar Gilbert as Bill

“… a fascinating and celebrated play “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

These days Little Englanders have never had it so good, which of course sticks in the craw. Well, it might, and it should, particularly if you’re from Tristan da Cunha and want to get home. You won’t get far via Google maps – try it: Edinburgh, Scotland, to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, furthest South Atlantic. Add it up in stages: Edinburgh to Cape Town is 8,900 miles and then from the Cape to the UK’s most remote overseas territory is another 1746; a total of 10646 miles. Zinnie Harris’  fascinating and celebrated play certainly goes the distance and has considerable appeal and for a student company to attempt the same without the scenic resources of the professional theatre is quite some going. This is intrepid work by directors Jess Haygarth and Aggie Dolan.

‘Drips and drips’ begin the first half of Further than the Furthest Thing and then there’s a homecoming. Francis, 20 something, comes back to Tristan and to the girl he left behind. The tiny population lives off its potato ‘Patches’ and from its crayfish catch. Resources are scarce and timber has had to be taken from the church roof to make a coffin. Wistful cello, flute and violin accompany the sound of the waves but this is not Eden. There’s rumbling thunder and something is definitely not right up on the mountain. Bill Lavarello, a village elder, has heard the lake churning, and that is a bad, bad sign. Perhaps God is angry for what the islanders did some twenty years ago; but for now a businessman, who got off the ship with Francis, has a plan for them all. Then nature expels him and everyone else.

Mr Hansen is the unsmiling factory owner who can make eggs disappear. Harry Richards plays him as an Economics major, disciplined, good with manila folders and with a dismal hold on emotional intelligence. Nevertheless, Hansen would seem to offer change and prosperity and he almost does.

Variation-on-Kraftwerk’s Robots opens the second half in Hansen’s UK bottling plant. Young Geographers will know that the characters have left the global south. Sociology freshers will recognise anomie, although This is England it ain’t. Folk are displaced when work is directed from behind desks. Bill is told that he has a ‘good’ job tending pipes in the boiler room and his wife Mill is offered the almighty vision of a fitted kitchen in affordable housing. A younger couple, Francis and Rebecca, determine to return to their ‘Village’, to that other Edinburgh far, far away, but have they missed their ‘time’?

Bill (Oscar Gilbert) and Mill (Tiffany Garnham) are at the play’s centre. Bill has faith (and guilt) whilst Mill is shrewder, more adjusted. “We is from England now”, she says, employing the island dialect that characterises their speech and their shared past. There is a plain innocence to them and to their relationship that young actors can respond to very well. Francis (Rufus Love) is their strapping nephew who, whilst away in South Africa, is horrified and hurt by common, filthy, English usage. He is the conflicted one but it’s probably Rebecca who suffers the most and Anna Swinton acts her heart out in the role.

You may gather that this is a BIG and serious story for a small stage. Go deep, as poor Bill does, and you’re into the Book of Genesis; stay at the shallow end as I did, intrigued by the utter Englishness of folding picnic chairs, and you’ll hear Lennie in Of Mice and Men asking ‘How it’s gonna be .. [&].. tell how it is with us’. And so, uncomfortably, as scene follows scene (reckon on 25 plus) it is all in the telling. Should it sound quite so educative? Earnest speech delivers premonition just as effectively as the horrific promise that Rebecca demands of Bill, and the speech is unrelenting. The drama just gets too wound up, is constantly interrupted by shifting table and chairs, and looked far from easy. It became long and portentous and beyond what an EUTC production, however devoted, should attempt. Only sardonic tea with Mill, Rebecca and Francis provides light relief, that and the happy injunction to ‘Feel like Britons’, even when naked.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 March)

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Me, As A Penguin (Bedlam, 8- 9 March’17)

Rufus Love as Mark and Sally MacAllister as Liz.
Photos: EUTC

“Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars

This is a real Buy Now goodie. There’s cake, Bowie’s Heroes, Hull, aka.UK City of Culture 2017, and top-shelf performance. All, or thereabouts, satisfying and delightful.

Tom Wells’ play is eight years old now but doesn’t have a sell-by date, and certainly not for a student audience. For a start, most (boys) feel guilty about not knowing how to knit and there’s something unquantifiable, way beyond The Complete University Guide, about tasty bites of Battenberg for tea on an old but wonderfully comfortable sofa. Caitlin Allen’s set and costumes are a treat by themselves.

Not that anyone’s at Uni’ in this play, although a few ‘soft’ (ie. valuable) GCSEs like Textiles are shared around. Liz (22-23?) is going to have a baby very, very soon, and can’t wait to be a young mum in ASDA with baby sick in the pocket of her jeans. Mark, dad-to-be and nice bloke, used to work at IKEA where sofas just reproduce. His mate Dave – a ‘complete twat’, in Liz’s honest opinion – is a keeper at Hull’s old aquarium, before it became spectacular as ‘The Deep’. And then there’s Stitch, Liz’s kid brother, a ‘yearning not belonging’ kind of guy who has a sad thing for Dave but who is happier knitting snoods and eating yoghurt. When Me, As A Penguin begins Stitch has come back with a new friend, whom he has stashed behind the shower curtain.

Liz probably shouldn’t be at the heart of the play – that’s more likely to be Stitch’s lovable anguish – but Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific. It’s comic but tender and never more so than during a fabulous dance routine with Stitch and the later, faster, exit for the maternity unit when Mark tries to pack the hospital bag. Forget birth plan or dressing gown, think more potted plant.

Oliver Beaumont as Stitch and Sally MacAllister as Liz.

Oliver Beaumont is Stitch, gay, gangling and woebegone. He has almost given up on the city. Withernsea and home, 17 miles away, is a kinder place. Forlorn rather than pathetic works for him and results in a near miss with tragedy that sidesteps the absurd. It’s Stitch’s relationship with Dave (Tom Whiston) that’s difficult to realise. The script for the two of them is unforgiving and explicit and especially tough to realise from inside a giant penguin suit.

Tom Wells, the writer, has a degree in English. At a guess, he’s read Cowper’s The Sofa , a hymn to IKEA from 1794, with its immortal opening, I sing the Sofa (!)– that takes aim at the upholstered and the artificial. Me, As A Penguin is in the same virtuous, giving, vein and this production, directed by Matthew Sedman, is really worth seeing.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 March)

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Mack the Knife (Bedlam: 25 – 26 Jan.’17)

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“Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a virtual Hall of Fame in this show: Brecht, Weill, Lotte Lenya, to start with; and a few music greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sinatra – and then Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin with the title song. If you want more, there could be Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s The Lady is a Tramp and a passing literary reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller would channel them all through his play. It’s a clever and applaudable conceit but the interference is too much. Too many signals from too many sources.  A mellow jazz intro’ – nice – leads into Oh, Lady Be Good which given what follows is practically hilarious. ‘Lady’ sings that she’s ‘all alone in this big city’ but for all her lonesomeness she is plainly making out just fine. It helps that the competition in the other clubs is thinning out, alarmingly so in fact, and the police appear clueless.

Detective Foster (Paddy Echlin) likes his work. He’s had lessons in psychological profiling and Jack the Ripper is on his mind rather than Georgia but he’s a poor sap. He has the sharp trench coat and the 50’s trilby but is not the hard-boiled character that he thinks he is. More a marshmallow with a toy gun.  Deacon (Jacob Brown), Lady’s trumpet player, is more on the case and knows a set-up when he sees one but unfortunately his incredulous WTF’s don’t help him. As for Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’, Jo Hill enjoys herself. She’s sassy at the mike, sings confidently, and is audacious beyond reckoning.

And here’s the rub. Lady’s luck – call it ‘cool’ if you must – is something else. It turns tension into the comic macabre, not least when she kneecaps herself and stays on her feet. Maybe her aim was off but even a flesh wound must hurt like hell. Then there’s the absolute gift of a police detective who ‘packs heat’ like Clouseau on holiday.

Will Briant on piano and Vebjorn Halvfjierdvik on bass give the piece a tempo and style that if extended – for the Fringe, say – could lift the play into the lighter, skilful register that Brimmer-Beller is reaching for.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 January)

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