Carlisle College of the Arts Theatre
Thursday 30th of July 2016
The End of Year Showcase
What do you want from student theatre? I would say youthful exuberance, playfulness, energy, a developing confidence, skill and artistry; but also that the art has ideas as well as giving pleasure. Well, this production certainly provides all of these and in the words of the poet, John Dryden, “There is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not what to follow.” So, in that spirit, and as space doesn’t allow a comprehensive commentary, I’ll comment on parts of the show that sprang up before me.
The show begins with a dance routine, The Lion King, and the dance troupe led by the impressively energetic Whitney Bell certainly sets the energy bar high as a pride of lions prowl around the stage to The Lion King theme tune; the opening dance successfully fulfils its function: to encourage the audience to participate and prepare them for the games to come.
Following on we have a monologue from Finlay Eagleson playing what is now a stock comic character of British culture─the old-fashioned school master in a mortar board and cape: in my imagination, ranging through from the comics of my youth (The Dandy with Winker Watson and Mr Creep), the Ealing comedies, to popular music, The Smiths Headmaster Ritual springing to mind, with “Sir doing the military two-step/ down the nape of my neck.”.
One for the audience this as in this performance, a warm up for the evening show, there are many in the audience who work in the college ─ mind you, the gentleman sitting next to me whispers in my ear, “Takes me back to 1974 when I worked in…”. So still fresh in the mind for some. The sketch is essentially a roll call of names, reflecting the title of the piece, and for those old enough it certainly stimulates memories of the days, not so long ago, when the teacher with or without a mortar board would spend an eternity reading out the register pausing for sarcastic commentary on behaviour, attitude and work: occasionally enhanced by flying chalk or a board rubber for those deviant enough not to respond with a timely “Here sir!”.
The comedy here though comes from timing, gesture and from the emphasis and repetition of certain words: in this case the word “tweak” and its variations, as in one of the milder punishments of the past, the tweaking of the ear; Eagleson savours the word as if he is about to eat it, reminding me of the way Rowan Atkinson savours and elongates words for comic effect; I am also impressed with the way Eagleson had the confidence to pause for emphasis and use facial gestures to suggest the inner emotional strain caused by taking a register; a success and very funny, exemplified by the audience laughter. We also see the influence of Atkinson and his comtempories developed and made explicit in a later sketch, entitled Blackadder.
Another sketch that sprang up at me was Magic Mitchell; an old-fashioned variety show magic trick of the pick-a-card variety involving audience participation. I’ve no idea how he did the trick, but the whole thing was a lot of fun, enhanced by a member of the audience with an infectious laugh; Mitchell is another performer with a great face for theatre and he certainly was able to engage the audience in his act. I particularly liked the Tommy Cooper allusion when turning to ask the audience member with the pack of cards: “You didn’t shuffle the cards did you?” looking genuinely nervous; perhaps he was, who knows, the trick worked.
The second half of the show begins with a shift to a darker mood. The sketches exploring themes ranging from the sinister effects of developing technologies to the effects of an all-encompassing mass media, through interpretative and thought-provoking dance in Technology Takeover with the dancers moving surreptitiously in the gloom behind a flickering screen displaying well known mediums/logos and the message Weapons of Distraction prominent on the screen; the performance is brief but exemplified another theme of the show which is developed through references in dance to The Wizard of Oz and a solo Ben Taylor singing Music of the Night through the gloaming : the theme revealed in the conclusion to The Wizard of Oz when the wizard is revealed to be an old man pulling levers: the reality behind the deceptive curtain. Here I’d like to give a mention to Taylor’s performance, not always note perfect, but certainly a moving rendition of the song, and like many of the other performers, Taylor has an expressive face that does communicate with the audience.
I’d also like to mention the Shakespearean swopping of gender roles that worked to great effect in some of the sketches. In particular in Shakers a satire on stereotypical male behaviour where the male roles were taken by females, in this case Whitney Bell and Rebecca Stringer disconcertingly admiring the cleavage of the bar maid played by Beth Bradshaw (insert your own sexist clichés here, you’ll know them all). The switching of roles defamiliarized the situation making it more effective, but as usual: the drink provoking the desire, but taking away the performance.
As mentioned earlier, another very funny sketch was entitled Blackadder with impressive performances from Rob Joseph, Finlay Eagleson and Shane Mitchell. The sketch I presume is taken from the show, so guaranteeing effective comic dialogue; what I liked here is Rob Joseph’s Stephen Fryesque turn as a legless (literally on both counts) pirate captain, delivering his lines with perfect timing but also having the confidence to adlib effectively with the other performers but also with the audience: calling out “Bless you!” when an audience member sneezes. I also liked the clever update of the script to reflect the EU referendum: Finlay’s character hilariously unable to pronounce Calais properly, and having to be corrected by the legless pirate. They were also clearly enjoying themselves.
The show delivers on everything you would want to see in student theatre; perhaps in the second half the occasional sketch became a little didactic in terms of the themes of prejudice/equality and diversity, forgetting to show not tell; but then again modern education always demands that you’re ready for inspection: “Here sir!” But taken overall there is no serious disruption to the enjoyment of the production, all involved should be commended for their efforts, and I left the theatre with a line from one of the Blood Brothers sketches in my head: “Nothing’s sad, ‘til it’s over”, again reminding me of recent events.
Reviewer: Paul Rivers