Thursday, 17 October 2013

Festen: a dark celebration

I saw this show on its opening night. I'm delighted to report that my enthusiastic urging to see it was, in my opinion, wholly justified: it was a startlingly impressive show.

First, a few comments from other audience members:

"I would like to publicly congratulate Michelle and the cast and crew of Festen. I saw the production yesterday and I can truly say it is a most engaging and atmospheric performance. The language was at times a bit 'strong' but that was not a problem.  I felt involved in the ghastly revelations at what, on the face of it, was a happy dinner party celebration. The audience were all equally enthralled, there was the occasional short sharp intake of breath which convinced me they also were involved with the dysfunctional family. Comments during the interval and after the performance were among the most enthusiastic I have ever heard."

"Awesome production, loved the Michael Douglas charm of the father, superb acting from every character, a complex set of characters & perspectives brilliantly portrayed. They captured all the emotional tension and loved the 'silent scene' and very clever use of the limited space, thoroughly enjoyable night out and one which will be remembered for a long time."

"Amazingly successful, engaging production. One audience member said she had seen it at the Theatre Royal a few years ago and our production was just so much more atmospheric!"

"Just back from seeing Festen... It was just fantastic, it's left me feeling a bit speechless, the actors are utterly professional to the very end, an absolutely tremendous production as always. Thank you for a great evening."

"Big Congratulations to all the cast of Festen, James Thomson, Jesse Kirkbride and all. A brilliantly directed and expertly written piece of theatre. Challenging and direct with distinct and believable characterisation. A breath of fresh air at The Sewell Barn Theatre."

And my favourite review so far, from David Shaw:

"What a play!! What a production!! Brave, corrosive, coruscating. I can't remember being so involved in a production.  You were there, weren't you? and frequently wishing you weren't.  When they sang that song at the end of act one I felt disgusted, dirty and ashamed.

All the cast were excellent.  I particularly liked the maid, her naivety, her freshness, and was so relieved that she gave us a glimmer of hope at the end. Shadows of Casablanca "at least we will have Paris!!" And she was such a contrast to the chef who was malevolently terrific. Faultless, everyone.  And I want to be directed by that woman!!"

And from me?

Well, this is not a light-and-fluffy evening at the theatre. It's dark, emotional and intense. There is strong language, and there are 'adult themes'. But then, if you want light-and-fluffy, there's plenty of chewing-gum entertainment available on the goggle-box.

Every one of the characters was consistent. No matter how much or how little they had to say or do, they remained steadfastly within their creation, never dropping their alter-ego for a moment. Given that the experience of the cast ranges from a teenager to an octogenarian, this was impressive. Every single one of the actors was focused and impressive, and I could mention every single one by name; but I have to especially commend Terry Cant for the strength, charm and vulnerability of an extraordinarily difficult creation; and Matthew Buck for an intense and passionate performance that, at times, literally took my breath away.

The direction of this complex piece was excellent. Working in the confines of the intimate Sewell Barn, which is both a huge benefit and a potentially tricky limitation, the interaction of characters (sometimes with three scenes superimposed over each other) was kept clear and strong. The brave use of silence and discomfort was deeply affecting and effective. The set was elegant and sophisticated without being intrusive. The use of music - both as performed by the cast and as incidental mood-setting - was haunting and atmospheric.

If you really cannot bear the use of four-letter words (not gratuitous, although frequent: they are intrinsic to certain characters); or if you would be too deeply disturbed by the powerful portrayal of abusive family relationships, and feel that you would therefore be prevented from appreciating the skill and dramatic intensity, then perhaps this play is not for you. However, if you are willing to suspend preconception and to immerse yourself in a fascinating, powerful and thought-provoking piece of theatre, I strongly recommend that you catch one of the remaining performances. As I've already expressed on Facebook: if either caution or apathy prevents you, it will be Your Serious Loss.

Festen plays at the Sewell Barn until Saturday 19th October, including a matinee on the Saturday. Visit the Sewell Barn website for details, and/or call Jarrolds on 01603 697248.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

I've never tried it so I don't like it

There's a splendid quote that I'm rather fond of from the inimitable Lewis Carroll.

Little girl to nurse: "I'm so glad I don't like asparagus."
Nurse: "Why, dear?"
Little girl: "Because if I did like it I'd have to eat it - and I can't bear it."

How much does that apply to many of us with new experiences? Specifically, in this case, theatrical experiences. Yes, I know I've been here before (several times): my love of the theatre (from all perspectives: performer, director and audience) means that I believe passionately that 'trying the new' is something that we should all do. But I'm about to bang on about it again.

I've said a lot of this already in the lead-up to a previous show at the Sewell Barn: Airswimming. You can read the post here. This truly magnificent show was a classic example of the comments that I hear, time after time: "I so wish I'd seen that play - I heard it was brilliant." The same was true of the show that followed it (When the Rain Stops Falling). Both shows were stunning experiences, superbly acted and directed, highly challenging, and outside predictable theatrical fare. Neither was Ayckbourn or Shakespeare, or the stage version of some recognisable TV show. In fact, you'd be very unusual if you'd heard of either of them before (I certainly hadn't). But these were evenings that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Now, the upcoming show at the Sewell Barn is Festen. It's dark, disturbing and powerful. It's not a light-and-frothy farce or a Mills-and-Boon dose of slushiness. There's strong language, there are 'adult themes', and no, it's not suitable for young children. However, I've seen some rehearsals, and can strongly, highly, emphatically recommend it. There are some stunning performances, an extraordinarily well-designed and imaginative set, superb direction.

"It's not my sort of thing"... how do you know if you haven't tried it? I wouldn't have thought that a tale about two women incarcerated for fifty years in a mental asylum for the crime of having children out of wedlock was 'my sort of thing'. (If you're wondering, my 'sort of thing' is more likely to be a hefty dose of Kander & Ebb, stuff-strutting and fishnets.) Yet I left that theatre having laughed and cried, thought and pondered, discussed and dissected; yes, stimulated. I didn't know what to expect, and I got it.

"What if I don't like it?" Well, sue me. The worst that can happen is that you feel you have experienced nothing in that two hours or so that has given you an intellectual or emotional workout. Personally, I think that's very unlikely. Don't get me wrong: I don't leave every show I see raving about it (far from it). But I can safely say that, in some forty years of theatregoing, I can count on the fingers of one hand the shows that I really, honestly, seriously disliked on all counts. For 99% of the time, I'll leave full of questions, comments, praise - and, yes, criticism - but very, very seldom unmoved. Even a show that left me, on the whole, underwhelmed will have some performance, some element of direction, some creative idea that has thrilled or interested me. In other words, it is very unlikely to be a completely wasted journey. On the other hand, I see television shows all the time - especially so-called 'talent' shows - that leave me thinking "well, that was two hours of my life I'll never get back".

As I've said before: do yourself a favour. Try it. You might like it. And even if you don't wholly, unreservedly 'like it', you'll take away something: a new experience, a thought process, an emotion, a challenge.

And if you do shift yourself to buy a ticket, you'll have done something else: made it more likely that shows like this - and unlike this - will be put on at this unique venue in the future. Because without you, there is no point.

Box office: 01603 697248. Over to you.