Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (2/2)

Campbeltown Drama Festival (1/2)

Click on the above link for the first evening of the Drama Festival, on February 14, where I review 3 plays. There were another 3 plays the next evening. The reviews follow.

Lochgilphead Drama Club started the evening with The Big Cats, by Alex Baron. Lily is an extremely determined old woman who refuses to be moved from her terraced house in Scunthorpe when the entire area is being demolished for redevelopment. While she dearly loves her husband, Joe, she obviously wears the trousers in the family. And there’s something not quite right about the situation. Joe is strangely passive, he doesn’t physically handle any of the props, and he looks significantly younger than Lily. They spend much of the time reminiscing about the past, rather than talking about everyday matters, apart from the threat of moving.

The mystery is solved when Ann, a social worker, visits Lily to try to persuade her to accept the very nice flat she’s been offered. It’s as if Joe, who is actually present in the room, doesn’t exist. He says nothing, and Ann appears not to see him. So, he’s a ghost, and that explains everything.

Problem is, with that conundrum out of the way, the dramatic tension starts to sag. There  is the impending crisis of the “big cats” – caterpillar tractors or bulldozers – getting closer and closer to the house as the surrounding areas are cleared. Lily must either accept the flat or sign a paper saying she will make her own arrangements. Otherwise the the police will remove her from the house when the time comes. She refuses to do either, defying the police threat. Joe tries to persuade her, pointing out that the house is too big for them. Their son, Simon, is apparently dead. And the top floor has been sealed off to conserve heating. So a flat would be ideal for Lily. But she clings to her memories she and Joe share, refusing to leave him, a ghost, in the only haunt where he can survive.

Will she, won’t she? Of course she will – we know that. Ann makes a final appeal a day before literally the 11th hour, 11:00 the next morning, when the big cats will destroy the only remaining house in a wasteland of rubble. So Lily and Joe have a last heart to heart talk in which he begs her to accept the flat for his sake. Next morning, there she is when Ann arrives, with her suitcase and a cardboard box of belongings. But as a catalyst for her change of heart, the exchange the night before is unconvincing.

The play was most interesting when the oddities of Lily’s relationship with Joe were unexplained. That done, the climax was predictable and trite, though there were some hints that it could have been much darker. With the upper floor sealed off, and Lily talking to her dead husband as if he were alive, I was hoping for an ending something along the lines of A Rose for Emily. But my hopes were dashed when Lily said that he died in hospital after a stroke. Pity. I can just see Ann discovering her lying next to Joe’s mouldering corpse.

Peninver Players Juniors were up next, with The Wise Villagers, by Ron Nicols, the adjudicator. It’s a charming romp, with an all-ages junior cast, about young Squire Squibley’s quest for a sillier bunch of people than the idiotic family he’s marrying into. He is betrothed to Gwendoline Gumble, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and neither are her mum, dad, and grandmother. They’re all transfixed by the mallet on the shelf above their heads, having hysterics about the possibility of it falling on their heads, and completely failing to remove the danger by simply removing it from the shelf. Come to think of it, not unlike MMGW.

Hence Squire Squibley’s quest to see if there is anyone sillier than the Gumbles, in which case he will return to marry Gwendoline. Fortunately for her, he discovers the village of Gotham, where they think the moon has fallen into the pond when they see its reflection. Among many other extremely silly things.

As I said, a charming romp. But it also demonstrated something of the seriousness with which they take drama festivals in Scotland. A group of at least 6 actors were on stage. One forgot his or her lines. So they whispered briefly together, then backtracked a few lines and began again. All without panic, demonstrating a degree of trust in the audience and themselves as actors. I was impressed.

Dunaverty Players put on the final play of the festival, Background Artiste, by Stephen Smith. Alfredo Leache runs a very special kind of talent agency. It’s for “artistes” who can be guaranteed to remain firmly in the background of any production they appear in, or more likely, fail to appear in. The most reliable revenue stream for Alfredo would probably be the fee aspiring artistes pay for inclusion in his listings, while his commission for actual work would be negligible.

That said, he has some awesome artistes on the books. He spends most of the performance on the phone trying to place Dirk van Dyke in a skating role in Starlight Express, despite the fact that Dirk can’t roller skate. This is done with the help of Jessica, an assistant who finds considerable mental challenge in navigating the Yellow Pages. And it’s done in between Alfredo’s frequent journeys to the lavatory.

On the other side of the stage, there’s the client’s couch, occupied by Mary, a hopeful first-timer. While she’s waiting, her illusions are being shattered by Enid and Walter, a couple who seem to have spent a lot of time at the agency. They whinge on about the food and conditions, until poor Mary is quite disheartened. But she stays in the hope of a role once Alfredo can find time to interview her.

Then Enid goes off to get some Chinese food from the takeaway downstairs, and quite suddenly Alfredo is ready for her, having got a result with placing Dirk. Alfredo’s an honest, friendly rogue, and doesn’t hide the fact that he’s grateful her actual appearance is a lot better than the photo she’s supplied. He seems to be more of a therapist for those with acting ambitions than a bona fide theatrical agent.

This idea is reinforced when Enid and Walter reveal themselves to be Alfredo’s parents, retired actors, and part-owners of the agency. Their job is to evaluate the new applicants by discouraging them, but if they think an applicant has something and is prepared to persevere, secretly signal to Alfredo. Thus thumbs up is Enid going for a Chinese, thumbs down if Walter does.

Contrived, but the blether is entertaining and the ambience of a theatrical agency has its own appeal for someone like me. And it turns out it’s Mary’s lucky day. Based on her horrendous photo, he places her as a mutant on Star Tek: The Next Generation. Cue tractor beam, Star Trek music, and final curtain.

Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (1/2)

Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (2/2)

We take theatre seriously in Scotland. Tuesday was the first night of the 63rd District Festival in the Kintyre Argyll District of the Western Division of the Scottish Community Drama Association, where local amateur dramatic groups are judged against each other for various trophies – the crown jewel being the eponymous Rex Trophy, won last year by Carradale Drama Club.

The event is held at Campbeltown Grammar School. As usual I walked and lost my way. The school is a big modern building nested among what passes for suburbia in a town of 5,000 – bungalows in a rat’s nest of curving streets that seem to go nowhere. Campbeltown is such a small place that I always think it’s possible to walk anywhere in minutes, but always get lost in these streets despite leaving in plenty of time. Thankfully, a passing motorist I flagged down was going there as well, and gave me a lift.

Carradale Drama Club kicked off the festival with The Beach Hut, by Mark Rees, a very tasty black comedy about a 40 year old marriage gone murderously sour. Perfect for Valentines Day, and I thought it was the best play of the evening. Vera and Geoff, a retired northern couple, have been coming to Scarborough for their holidays for the last 40 years (including the honymoon). Vera’s a snob, moving them from a beach hut near the promenade, when it all got a bit too common, to a hut at the furthest end of the beach. Much like a yuppie would move out to the suburbs as a sign of status.

Geoff’s a down to earth sort of bloke, who hates being parked out in the sticks where you can’t see the young women in bikinis without using binoculars. And he hates Vera, who cordially returns the compliment, each one hoarding their resentments and secrets like misers under the calm surface of a boring, seemingly conventional marriage. But today is when the kraken wakes.

A minimalist set of 3 beach hut facades in blinding primary colours, flanked by cardboard cutouts of a fat lady and a skinny man in bathing suits, faces cut out, so the characters can speak through them directly to the audience. And I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside as the intro and outro music.

Lovely stuff.

It went downhill from there. Next up were Peninver Players, with Our James, by Roz Moruzzi. An underwhelming and contrived play, set in the late 1990s, about a Scottish woman who discovers that her mum gave birth to her via a sperm donor two years after her husband ran away with another man. Iris is very upset and wonders what to tell her 14 year old son, James, who is already in trouble at school. He’s 6’2″ tall with flame red hair, while she and his father are average height and dark-haired. Dang genes, jumping a generation.

So Iris goes respectively to a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, hospital records clerk, and a probation officer to ferret out her dad’s identity. All these offices serially occupy a corner of the stage. The problem is that there’s no dramatic tension in the plot, nor is the dialogue sharp enough to carry the play. The final revelation is like the punch line to a weak joke, turning as it does on an entirely expected symmetry between the behaviour of James and his grandfather. Granddad was tall, red-haired forger and so is James, who has has been making banknotes to help out his doting granny.

While Our James was underwhelming, I found Some Mother’s Son, by Mark Rees to be as dark as The Beach Hut, but with a stink of piety wafting from the stage. A production of Campbeltown’s own Accent Players, it’s set in a front line military hospital during the First World War. The protagonists are a group of nurses and two wounded soldiers. The Private is a young man, with his private parts scoured away by shrapnel, who is expected to die of his injuries. In the next bed is the Corporal, a grizzled army veteran of 35 years, in for a minor wound.

The Corporal tells the Private a secret. Just prior to being wounded, he slit a fellow-soldier’s throat, alleging the man had caused his wife to commit suicide by laying down on a railway line. An investigation is under way by the Captain, who will be visiting the hospital to ask them questions.

The Private takes it on himself to confess to the crime, knowing he will soon die. He tells a young nurse, a cheerful, pious lass, daughter of the kirk, insisting that she wait till he dies before telling the Captain. The Corporal finds out and, when the lad dies, awakens her suspicions by questioning her too closely about what she intends to do. He admits to the crime and, to make sure of compliance, threatens to cut her face if she doesn’t tell the Captain that the Private did it.

So Lucy, in fear for her life, repeats the lie. But on finding out the Private will be stripped of all honour and reputation, she tells the Captain the truth.

Here’s my problem with the piety angle. Lucy is like The Singing Nun (only Scottish and Protestant), unfailingly bright and cheerful, singing hymns with the soldiers to comfort them in pain, and cloyingly sweet. Fair enough, if that’s what floats your boat, but I was left drowning in a tide of bathos. True, her moral compass gains some nuance during the course of the play. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole of it.

The sainted Captain, sent to deliver justice, is portrayed as a kind of divinity. One of the other nurses is an old flame, and she is excited to be meeting him again. But she gets a homily from a senior nurse about devotion to duty, and this isn’t the time to be thinking about romance. It’s a sub-plot that goes no further. Pity. Perhaps the Captain wouldn’t have been such a cardboard character.

To be fair, Lucy is superbly balanced by the morally raddled Corporal, who has the acting chops (and the face) to bring something of the honest Iago to the role. He’s a far more interesting character, one quite capable of having murdered his wife, or driven her to suicide, all by himself.

But the apotheosis of piety occurs in the final scene, when there is a convocation of nurses and soldiers (including the scumbag Corporal), while the Captain delivers his sermon, sorry, announcement. Throughout the play there was a red medical cross illuminated on the wall at the back of centre stage, with a podium beneath it. Our gallant Captain  delivers his humbug pronouncement from this podium, illuminated by the light of the cross. The Private’s reputation is excoriated for supposedly killing the wrong type of soldier, thus prompting Lucy to defy danger and declare she must tell the truth. Curtain falls.

Now this play was written by Mark Rees, author of the pitch-black, Beach Hut. Is he being ironic and and I’m just too thick to notice? There’s certainly an inherent irony in a play about a soldier killing a soldier when he’s supposed to be killing other soldiers. But it’s played completely straight. That said, the dramatic tension made it the most interesting play of the evening from the point of view of plot. My jury’s still out on this one.

In a day or two, I will review Wednesday’s plays. Bit of a backlog right now, and I should tackle the more time-sensitive Singing Detective and Roger & Val first.