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Something Old, Something New

There was, in all honesty, nowhere else to go.  The theme of this post had to be one of contrast,  not of comparison.  Because after all there could be no comparison; there could be no equal or better.  Our head is still ringing from the sound of superlatives screaming above and exploding like supernova before showering back to earth spent but still glowing.

NOTBAd is, of course, basking in an immodest after-glow following our preconceptions getting that jolly good sorting they so badly needed.  Our uptight prejudice is now blowing languid smoke rings while avoiding the wet patch left behind  last week by Filter Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Here are some words:  witty, innovative, surprising, modern, deft, authentic, irreverent, surreal, bare, magical, sparkling, light, relevant, peerless, original, daft.

We’re still so smugly sated we can’t even be bothered to put them in any order.  Seriously.  You do it.  You can’t go wrong.  Any combination you care to come up with.  

Chances are, though, you’re going to run into some trouble.   You’ll try to force the words into sentences; bend them to obey the laws of grammar and reason; command them to describe what you’ve seen only to discover – poof! – they lose their power to invoke the magic you’ve experienced.  Words are simply too… well, earth-bound.

So relax.  Just take our word for it that this was as near a perfect production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that you are ever likely see, from a theatre company coming into the height of its powers.    Slick, furiously paced, engaging – more words, look! – in no time at all the strong cast wove a spell around us and transported us to a dream landscape where Oberon (Jonathan Broadbent) came in the form of an incompetent superhero and Puck (Oliver Dimsdale) with an attitude so truculent you suspect he was only there because of some sprite community service order.  

Ed Gaughan’s stand-up routine as Peter Quince began the process of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and this sense of slipping away from the real world was hastened by trippy and cartoonish compositions by on stage band and collaborators, The London Snorkelling Team.   The audience – unable to tell top from Bottom – soon happily relinquished control and suspended disbelief.   One dash of realism however acted as a sop for our addled brains – Hermia’s (Victoria Moseley), careful removal of her earrings before launching into a catfight with Helena (Rebecca Scroggs).

NOTBAd didn’t want to wake up, but are delighted to have found a new love of Bottom thanks to Fergus O’Donnell… oh, now wait.  Behave. 

What director Sean Holmes has achieved with this production is remarkable.  It must be nigh on impossible to gain fresh perspective on something that has been done so many times that there are no more angles to cover.   In an attempt to be original, to stand out, directors are often guilty of forcing Shakespeare to submit to a ‘vision’, and this can result in a self-conscious production falling victim to its own cleverness.

With Sean Holmes’ and Filter Theatre’s Dream there is no such contrivance.  It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it just feels right.  The madness, the exuberance – this is how it was always meant to be.  It is as if Shakespeare, rather than having to take a back seat to the production, has been allowed to sit up front and  co-direct. 

So.  As mentioned, Filter is at the height of its powers.  All its actors are trained and buffed by experience into breathing, speaking, moving parts of highly strung and needy motivation.  But they all had to start somewhere, didn’t they?

Enter BACstage Productions – a new theatre company established this year by Berwick Academy sixth form students Katie Hindmarsh and Shannon Thorpe – whose  production Be My Baby debuts this week at The Maltings before a near sell-out audience.

Don’t for one minute be fooled.  Yes, they are young.  Yes, they are relatively inexperienced.  But to dismiss them and their production purely on those grounds is not only to do them a disservice but cheats you, stupid person, out of a warm, touching and often heartbreaking play.

Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby is set in the 1960s, a time when a young unmarried girl falling pregnant would be routinely sent away to a mother and baby home so her family could avoid a scandal.  We follow the fortunes of only child Mary Adams (Katie Hindmarsh); light of her mother’s life, nineteen and seven months pregnant.  We desperately root for her as she and fellow inmates Dolores (Joy Hubbard), Queenie (Lorna Robertson) and Norma (Shannon Thorpe), struggle with the grim reality of their situation against a backdrop of saccharine pop songs from the era. 

Now, as readers will know, NOTBAd likes to throw flowers in the direction of stand out members of cast.   But we have a dilemma.  Every member of the cast delivered their character as a completely well-rounded and believable person.   There had obviously been some serious characterisation work beforehand, so take a bow, director Paula Griffiths.  It paid off and then some.

Katie Hindmarsh gave her character just the right amount of indignant naivety to be believable.  A bright girl from a middle class family, this was the first time in Mary’s life things hadn’t gone according to plan.   A subtle performance; her journey from child-like optimism to stiff-backed acceptance of how little control over our own destiny the world affords us thoughtfully drawn.

And then Lorna Robertson’s Queenie – what a delight.  Possibly the most complex character, Queenie has a big, bold, brassy exterior hiding a heart so brittle it’s only a hug away from  breaking.  Operating on an ‘attack is the best form of defence’ basis, one moment she’s a carefree teenager singing along to The Supremes, the next a derisive bully.  Lorna captured Queenie’s inner struggle perfectly.   Watching her, you felt a helpless sadness as she tried on an adult cynism still way too big for her. 

Shannon Thorpe delivered an emotional sucker-punch as Norma.   The audience held its breath and watched through blurry eyes as grief pole-axed Norma when the realisation dawned that she would never see her baby again.   Powerful and utterly convincing. 

Caitlin Mutch.  Wow.  Eighteen going on forty.  She gave Matron compassion, but it was a ramrod spined, knees-together compassion untainted by sentimentality.   It was to her great credit that Caitlin successfully managed to capture an older woman who had seen it all and knew how things had to end without it sliding into a caricature of a cold-hearted bitch. 

Melissa Stevens playing Mrs Adams, Mary’s mother, may have had less to do than other members of the cast, but she took just as much care and attention over her character.  Prim, proper, buttoning her love for her daughter behind a neat tweed suit, Melissa’s Mrs Adams longed to reach out to Mary but her need for respectability was greater.  Touching and painful to watch.

And at last,  Joy Hubbard as sweet-but-dim Dolores.  Now, it would have been easy to paint Dolores as a horrible cliché, but Joy turned in a most subtle, warm and funny performance.  You could see her think in character before she spoke.  Very impressive indeed. 

Staging Be My Baby on the transverse heightened tension and intimacy despite, speaking to the cast afterwards, scaring them half to death.  (Don’t worry; they’re young, they coped.)  Effective scene transitions were achieved by illuminating designated areas of the stage, or simply by raising and lowering them.  Owing to the transverse set-up this came with certain limitations, much to Steve Percy’s (Tech Manager)  frustration, but the audience remained blissfully ignorant.

Paula Griffiths glowed with pride for her cast at the end of the show, and in turn she should accept the bouquet and allow herself a private smile of satisfaction for a job more than well done.   As members of the cast head out into the big wide world to pursue a career in the performing arts it is Paula they’ll remember as that inspirational mentor who made them realise  exactly how good they can be. 

Here, they’ll remember, is where it started.  

Be My Baby, BACstage Productions, The Maltings Theatre, 7.30pm, 24th & 25th November 2011.

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