A hugely popular phenomenon in the US, the university a cappella craze has spent the last decade steadily spreading across the UK. Glee helped to boost it; so did 2012 film Pitch Perfect – and it seems now that the genre has reached its peak. Known for an inexplicable level of competitiveness for such a light-hearted craft, the UK scene is at its biggest here in Oxford, with seven full-sized, and very popular, a cappella groups.
Out of the Blue is the most successful group in the city; all-male and relentlessly serious about their professionalism, they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe this year to a 500-capacity venue. Also at Edinburgh this year were the mixed-gender jazz-specific Gargoyles; the The Alternotives, Oxford’s oldest group; and the all-female In The Pink. In The Pink’s fellow female group, The Oxford Belles, weren’t up there this year, but have been in previous years. The Ultrasounds, Oxford only all-male all-medic group, always perform in scrubs and are, by their own admission, “Oxford’s most amateurish a cappella group”; and there is Resound, a new ‘supergroup’ (as one singer described it to me) formed by an ex-member of the Gargoyles and Out of the Blue, and made up of hand-picked voices from across Oxford. Resound hasn’t made any music yet, so I can’t comment on its alleged superiority.
Before approaching any groups for interview, I asked some friends what they would want to ask Oxford’s a cappella groups if they were me. “Do they take it seriously?” asked one, and another said “Why is doing a song written for instruments with your voices better than doing it with instruments?”. Most abruptly: “What’s the point?”
All seven groups were asked a set of questions, hoping to shed some light on the murky world of 4-part harmony pop singing. Is the world of a cappella a serious place? Why do they do it? And how friendly is the competition? Hack-like stirring aside, there are also some innocuously interesting questions which you’ll hopefully find informative. Interviews over, are these groups being ironic? I’m still not really sure. Everybody got very evasive when asked about it – almost as evasive as they were when asked to comment on each other. Anyway they’re probably all very good friends and take themselves just the right amount of seriously. To be fair to them, even if they don’t, they all sound pretty great.
Let’s begin with the basics. What’s the most exciting thing about a cappella?
ALTERNOTIVES The feeling you get when you really nail an arrangement. Like when everyone’s tuning is spot on and it sounds kind of sexy.
BELLES How enthusiastic people get about it. It’s really exciting to be involved in something both performers and audience find so intriguing.
IN THE PINK All the male fans throwing themselves at us.
ULTRASOUNDS Being able to mash up Beethoven’s 5th and Ylvis’s seminal ‘The Fox’ (What Does the Fox Say?). Watch this space.
What’s the most exciting thing about your group?
ALTS My tagline at the Freshers’ fair stall was ‘Alts, an a cappella group for people who don’t necessarily like a cappella.’ I know that sounds a bit bizarre but what I mean is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s really not like Glee. I swear.
GARGOYLES Bringing a new genre to audiences who don’t necessarily have a notion of what jazz is or sounds like.
ITP Definitely our crew-date sconces. Wink wink.
ULTRASOUNDS That we are all CRB checked and available for children’s parties.
[caption id="attachment_46246" align="alignnone" width="614"] Alts, an a cappella group for people who don’t necessarily like a cappella[/caption]
What’s the Oxford a cappella scene like in comparison to other places?
ALTS Jam-packed. I have no idea how such a small city can have seven a cappella groups, but it’s quite fun; we’re all good friends… most of the time.
GARGOYLES In comparison to USA universities, it’s really very small – at Yale there are 13 a cappella groups.
ITP Cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, full of people who will stop at nothing to have the last ‘dum’.
ULTRASOUNDS Probably better than most of the DRC and Mogadishu. Probably worse than New York and California.
Do you think you are the best group in Oxford?
GARGOYLES It’s very difficult to compare the groups when we’re all singing such different repertoire.
BELLES It’s not really that fair to compare the groups with each other as each are so different.
OOTB I’d say we’re in the top 1.
[caption id="attachment_46226" align="alignnone" width="538"] Out of the Blue at Edinburgh: ‘I’d say we’re in the top 1′[/caption]
If you could be one other group in Oxford, which group would you want to be?
ULTRASOUNDS Ideally the female half of The Alternotives.
RESOUND The Alternotives, they’re really fun.
OOTB The Oxford Belles or In the Pink purely on account of sass.
ITP Out Of The Blue. I’ve heard they have great ties with this super-fun group called In The Pink.
If you had to be one other group in Oxford, which group would you least like to be?
RESOUND The Ultrasounds, they’d all be cleverer than us!
ITP The Ultrasounds. Those scrubs would do nothing for us, darling.
ULTRASOUNDS Homeless people. Conditions really are quite shocking for people with no fixed abode in Oxford, especially at this time of year. Please consider donating to a local homeless charity.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="614"] Tasteful jokes and CRB checks: The Ultrasounds at Leefest, where they were mistaken for Out of the Blue[/caption]
What are the benefits of being all-male/ all-female/ mixed-gender?
BELLES (all-female) Sometimes it’s fun to be girly! I also think it encourages people to stretch themselves vocally, to prove that we can be as loud and have as big ranges as mixed or male groups – which we achieve. Obviously.
OOTB (all-male) The ‘blend’ is much better with just male voices (no voice sticks out). All-female groups suffer from a lack of bass, and can’t produce as full a sound as a guys’ group.
GARGOYLES (mixed-gender): Sexual tension between members.
Do you fight over who gets to sing what?
BELLES No! It’s all done very diplomatically.
RESOUND No, I decide: it’s a dictatorship.
ITP Definitely not – this is not a democracy.
ULTRASOUNDS We have frequent scuffles with In the Pink about who gets to cover the latest song about strong independent women.
OOTB The soloist of a song is always a coveted position, but we always have enough variation in repertoire so that everyone has a chance to have a solo that suits their range and the style of their voice. Last year we were incredibly proud of producing our album ‘Blueprints’, in which all fourteen of us had a solo. I think that this is another unique attribute of Out of the Blue.
How do you arrange your songs?
ITP Generally start simple, with the clearest or most stand-out bits from the original song – then keep polishing with anything that sounds good, maybe bits from other songs, or anything really – this is when the creativity truly comes in.
ULTRASOUNDS Usually alphabetically.
How do you choose which songs to arrange?
BELLES A definite part of our image is singing songs that everyone will recognise and can jam out to, but if someone’s got an arrangement for something they love, we’ll sing it!
OOTB We always try and sing a range of genres so that everyone amongst our highly varied audience will recognise something.
ULTRASOUNDS We survey our target market of teenage girls to see what they would like to hear. Or just see what Out of the Blue did last year.
[caption id="attachment_46229" align="alignnone" width="445"] A Belle, jamming out[/caption]
Is beatboxing all the way through a song boring?
BELLES No, it isn’t; not only is it fun to play around with different beats at different parts of the song to see how everyone reacts, it’s a great ab workout.
GARGOYLES It depends on the style, but it’s never as interesting as singing.
How far is your tongue in your cheek? Please give answer in mm(length of tongue in cheek)/mm(length of tongue total) and supplement your figure with a written explanation.
RESOUND 30/120. [ed: these guys have long tongues] We’re not really going for full cheesiness so I guess our tongues aren’t that far in our cheeks.
OOTB I would say that we’re looking at an average of a solid 5mm. Our Beyonce choreography is 100% genuine.
ALTS Our tongues are flexible, although they are normally at least some way ‘in cheek’, as we don’t approve of the Miley Cyrus look.
ULTRASOUNDS How long is a piece of string?
ITP 30/30 – like, did you see what we’re called? [ed: these ladies have really short tongues]
BELLES 40/80mm. We are a 50/50, fair kinda group, with average sized tongues. We’d rather keep the readers guessing as to whether we’re being ironic are or not.
GARGOYLES sent in a picture of a member of their group with his tongue stuck out, not even in his cheek.
[caption id="attachment_46230" align="alignnone" width="303"] A member of the Gargoyles demonstrates how far his tongue is in his cheek[/caption]
How ironic do you think the other groups in Oxford are on a scale of 1-10?
ITP You’d definitely have to ask them. Oxford a cappella is a close-knit community, where we try not to speculate on each other’s levels of irony.
BELLES 10/10, but secretly we’re all just wishing we were in ‘Pitch Perfect’.
GARGOYLES Is there some link between a cappella and irony that I’ve just never noticed before?
But seriously now, how important is a cappella on a scale of 1-10? Where 1 is, like, what your facebook friends had for lunch, and 10 is finding a cure for cancer?
BELLES 6/10: It’s not going to save lives but it enhances them, definitely. I’d say that it does hold a special place in people’s hearts. Even if they won’t admit it.
OOTB 8/10: I don’t think that a cappella is essential – but it definitely cheers people up and I think that this is important.
ULTRASOUNDS 8/10: As people who cure cancer every day, sometimes more than once a day, we can say with confidence that a cappella is about an 8.
[caption id="attachment_46235" align="alignnone" width="576"] In The Pink: enhancing lives since 2003[/caption]
And… What plans are in the pipeline for this year?
RESOUND Hopefully a CD, a ball or two in the summer and making sure the group continues on after us.
ALTS A tour to America and possibly a new album. Then there’s the edgily named “VFUK” (Voice Festival UK) at some point in the spring.
ITP It’s our tenth year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and we’ll also be recording and releasing another album!
GARGOYLES A lot of gigs in Oxford; recording our 12th album, a two week tour to Asia and returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for the 9th consecutive year.
BELLES A Christmas concert, gigs around Oxford, recording new singles and music videos, new outfits, and, hopefully, a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe.
OOTB A UK tour at Christmas, a USA West Coast tour in Easter, and a European extravaganza in summer! We’ll have our traditional introductory G&Ds gig in 5th week, and a full concert at the Union in 8th week.
ULTRASOUNDS We’ve been booked for Wilderness Festival 2014.
PHOTOS / Facebook
Strolling up Jowett’s Walk, bound for a preview of the upcoming Playhouse take on The Producers, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Previews are never the full shebang; nine times out of ten they’re poorly executed, and everything can feel a bit too rough-and-ready. And so, in discovering that the Michael Pilch Studio has this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ thing going on, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
If you treat humour like a temple, or find Neil Patrick Harris tolerable, then its unlikely you’ve come across Mel Brooke’s shits and giggles masterpiece. Ironically turned into a bestselling Broadway musical, The Producers tells the tale of two desperate bozos in the Big Apple with the genius plan of scamming their investors by staging the worst show on Earth. Hilarious stereotypes come and go. Expect swastikas and gay men galore.
When you hear Oxford’s going to give slapstick a go, it’s hard not to wince. My most recent experience of Oxford comedy was up at the Edinburgh Fringe, a musical on Rawls’ Theory of Justice: far too stupid to follow anything, I feigned laughter, referring continuously to the PPE postgrad beside me. Oxford has a knack for taking itself too seriously – would my favourite farce be butchered by kids who find functionalism funny?
Fear not! The Producers is in fact in very good hands. Director Illias Thoms emphasised his vision to stage this comedy classic as “an escape” from the humdrum mechanics of intellectual theatre. Fortunately, he’s not precious either, and if anything has tweaked the script to make things more gauche.
Leading cast member Jack Herlihy, starring as larger-than-life schmuck Max Bialystock, deserves a big shout. He captures all that wheeler-dealer charm perfectly, and his Carry On Klutz rapport with fellow lead Stephen Hyde had me in stiches. Hyde, who has his whiney, nasaly, nerdy character down to a T, manages to bring out all the original Gene Wilder neuroses, whilst Philip Rigley, playing Hitler afficianado Franz Liebkind, obviously took the Basil Fawlty master-class on flamboyant Nazism.
All Broadway musicals are a feast for the eyes. It follows then that the forte of The Producers, written as a parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway, is the visual aspect; however, the Pilch Studio preview couldn’t permit much on this front. I was able to get to grips with odd song and dance: choreographically, the cast were phenomenally sharp, with seamless switches from Horah to jazz hands. Diverse and dynamic, the showtune numbers were a real treat.
My feeling, especially given that this show has had the largest budget in Oxford student production history with which to play around, is that the set will be fabulous. I am put at ease when Thoms assures me that everything from the hustle and bustle of New Yawk to 1930s moody lighting, reminiscent of Riefenstahl, has been meticulously designed. Equally, whilst the keyboard in the preview sufficed, the audience at the Oxford Playhouse have a 28-strong Big Band orchestra to look forward to. All in all, I am wholly convinced that this farce will be very far from a flop.
The Producers is showing at the Oxford Playhouse from 30th October-2nd November (3rd week). Tickets are available here.
PHOTO/ Kjetil Bjørnsrud
A common theme of many shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was the difficulties of coming to terms with human acts of outrageous violence. While Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya exposed abuse of women in India and Sean McCafferty’s Quietly confronted the deep-set hostilities still remaining in Northern Ireland, the subject matter of David Greig’s new play, The Events, is the aftermath of a shooting massacre. While clearly drawing on the 2011 Anders Breivik mass murder in Norway, Greig sets his event disturbingly closer to home: the victims are members of a church-led community choir for the vulnerable on the East coast of Scotland. The play focuses on the emotional, spiritual and ethical struggles of one survivor, Claire, the choir leader and parish priest. With a cast of only two, accompanied by a different local choir every night, the play expresses the human need to understand the reasons behind any atrocity.
However, it also shows that all too often human inflicted suffering lies beyond the realm of the comprehensible. Over the course of a continuous 90 minutes, we see this quest to understand the killer’s reasons wrack Claire, played superbly by Neve McIntosh. She reveals to the audience the full range of her character’s competing emotions: rage, confusion, frustration and guilt. Mackintosh’s performance is particularly compelling for the way it marries an almost selfish obsession together with a maintained, genuine commitment to her community and to those who died.
Greig raises many possible reasons for the killer’s homicidal desires: parental abuse, bullying, repressed sexuality, or extremist ideology. However, as Claire finds out to her frustration, whilst he may have had some experience of all of these, none were severe enough to mitigate his crime. We certainly aren’t allowed the comfortable let-out of mental illness – unless one counts “mass shooting syndrome”. Instead, we are left, together with Claire, questioning the possibility of evil.
Rudi Dharmalingam is particularly impressive in his performance as the killer, ‘the Boy’. In the long-awaited dialogue between him and Claire, he dispels ideas in the audience’s mind of evil, while still unsettling us with the disassociated communication of the outsider. In accordance with Greig’s script Dharmalingam also plays almost all other characters other than Claire. The breadth of discussion with these characters is wide but it can, perhaps because of Dharmalingam’s insufficiently differentiated characterisation, make the storyline quite difficult to follow. This is exacerbated by an almost chaotic progression of scenes. However, the fragmented narrative does successfully convey a sense of Claire’s own fractured post-traumatic mind-set.
In addition to beautiful music, the choir provide the background and continuing community against which Claire’s story is set. It is sometimes difficult to gauge which community they represent at any given moment – whether that of the dead choir members, of fellow survivors likes Claire, or the wider community, including ourselves. However, their non-professional status and local specificity not only gives the production a chilling feeling of reality, but also serve as a reminder that such atrocities can happen anywhere.
This play in its unusual non-naturalistic telling of the effects of a tragic event explores intense psychological and philosophical questions about evil, suffering and forgiveness. As a play of ideas, rather than one driven by character or plot, The Events asks searching questions: should we ever stop trying to understand that which is opposed to us, and instead just class it as evil?
After a sell-out run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and a successful national tour,The Events is opening at the Young Vic Theatre on 9th October. Tickets are available from the Young Vic’s website.
PHOTO/ Wikipedia Commons
There was a rather smelly old man in a loudly-rustling coat at the back of this performance of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. For an entire hour he shuffled and rustled uncomfortably. In a great many plays this would have been a distraction. This performance, however, was so gripping – so suspenseful – that even the smelly old man did not succeed in shattering the illusion of what was happening on stage. The audience was riveted. And rightly so.
The play is set in the 1950s, and the dingy underground studio added to the atmosphere of a cramped and dirty flat. There was an ironing board that saw a lot of action, a couple of chairs, a bed and an electric hob – it was uncluttered, basic, believable. And all four actors were practically flawless. Tom Hilton pitched Jimmy perhaps a bit further up the class scale than audiences might expect, but he fulfilled the criteria for “angry young man” perfectly, with an exuberance of action and a subtlety of tone that was hugely enjoyable to watch. There were very little of the standard resorts to shouty shouty anger towards which actors occasionally tend: instead, his verbal attacks on politics, society, Alison’s family and Alison herself were restrained, but still oozing malice. Conor Kennedy as Cliff was an excellent foil, with a lilting Welsh accent whose gentleness and tenderness towards Alison, and whose patience with Jimmy, undercut the tension and gave the audience glimpses of the trio’s potential to be a happy family.
Artemis Fitzalan Howard made Alison so endearing: there was a sadness in her eyes, and a panoply of emotions bubbling underneath the placid exterior. These emotions burst out at points – first when she knocked the cosmetics on her dressing table onto the floor, then in a heartbreaking scene toward the end when she turned to face the audience, her cheeks glistening with tears. So were those of the audience member next to me, audibly sobbing. Fitzalan Howard and Hilton worked very well together, especially in a scene in which Alison shows Jimmy her little squirrel dance. It was, somehow, entirely natural, and attained the elusive ideal for theatre of making the audience insignificant, of their becoming the flies on the wall they are meant to be, intruders into a small flat in the 1950s.
When Helena, the brusque and beautiful Lara McIvor, comes on the scene it is difficult to imagine how the fragility of the relationships on stage can be intensified, but McIvor’s purse-lipped disapproval, her willingness to provoke Jimmy and protect Alison, made the tension all the more tangible, more unbearable.
At the beginning of Act 3, when Cliff and Jimmy break into song, the mood is at its most settled and there are smiles and laughter from the characters. The song descends into a play-fight but we cannot tell how much further it will go, whether friendly wrestling will turn into genuine anger or not. It was a brilliant example of the instability of these characters’ relationships, of how fragments of domestic bliss can become sour at any moment.
The directors, Ellie Keel and Isabel Marr, went easy on props, sound effects, set design (quite appropriately, considering the calibre of the cast). The production was unencumbered by distractions. This left, quite simply and very effectively, a superlative script, wonderfully acted.
Look Back in Anger, performed by students of Oxford University, is showing at the Edinburgh Fringe until Saturday 17th August, Greenside Studio One, 7.39-8.35pm. More information is available on the Festival’s website: http://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/event/356267-look-back-in-anger/
PHOTOS/ Film stills from Nigel Kneale’s 1958 adaptation. Featured image: Macaroon Productions.
“A Theory of Justice: The Musical.” One imagines that the transcript of its conception mirrored that of a group of drunk teenagers negotiating the theft of a traffic cone:
“This is going to be hilarious!”
“We’re absolutely mental, aren’t we?”
“I know, we are, we’re just mental.”
Like much of the petty crime in Oxford, A Theory of Justice: The Musical is the brainchild of a few PPE students. Condensing centuries of political philosophy into one hammy musical, the play follows liberal philosopher, John Rawls on a journey into a magical world of philosophy that defines – as well as defies – all logic. Encountering Socrates and his dummy, Plato, and a lobby of Utilitarians, he chases his Muse, Fairness, through dark and enlightened ages – all the while, pursued by the dastardly libertarian, Robert Nozick.
The play takes an interesting approach to some of the writers that it satirises, and isn’t afraid to take the show in a farcical direction.
The writing sometimes suffers from a smugness, revelling in its own comedic wit, but this might be the fault of the delivery which, at times, is too self-aware. The performers seem to be waiting for the ‘bum dum bum tssh’ of an imagined drum kit, so that the joke is anticipated before its even out of the actors’ mouths. However, when executed correctly, the cheesy jokes can be rather charming. (Admittedly, it takes a while to be fully initiated into the premise.)
Though the musical incorporates a variety of different musical styles (from cabaret to gospel, through the decidedly more hazardous styles of hard rock and rap), it has the feel of a 21st century Broadway musical and requires a strong cast of trained singers. Thankfully, it is a cast made up of incredible voices. A mention must go to David Wigley, who plays (among other roles) Immanuel Kant, as Rawls’ “deontological fairy godmother”, dressed in drag with a thick German accent. His vocal performance raises hairs on the back of the neck, even in the modest rehearsal space. Put in the O’Reilly with all the technical works of the production behind it, his performance should be a high point of the show.
The cast is a motley crew of singers and actors, and each one is identifiable as one or the other. The directorial team, Esmé Hicks and Robert Natzler, are convinced that – after some more training and rehearsals – the difference should be almost indistinguishable. Given some weaknesses in the cast, this seems a little ambitious.
Members of the production and marketing team are adamant that it will be accessible to political philosophers and punters alike. Producer, Ramin Sabi, describes their ticket-sales as “unprecendented”. Group bookings that include schools, societies and universities have certainly helped hack away at that breakeven figure. Already a sell-out show, the producers have clearly got it right – artistic merit be damned.
To be fair, it’s quite endearing, and a lot of thought has gone into it. It’s just a musical, standing in front of Oxford, asking to be loved. So if you like Aristotle, jokes you could grate on your bolognese and soulful musical numbers that rhyme “phenomenal” with “nominal”, this musical will be right up your street.
A Theory of Justice: The Musical opens in the O’Reilly Theatre, Keble College, at 7.30pm, 30th January.
Tickets are now completely sold out for all five nights. There is a waiting list available.
PHOTO/ Carl Turpie
You probably remember David Wickenden from his weekly TV appearances on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross with his house band, 4 Poofs and a Piano, adding a rapturous gaiety to the entrance of the various celebrities who walk through the doors of the BBC Green Room. The show’s cancellation in 2010 left 4 Poofs without a stage, arguably making them the most tragic victims of the Brand-Ross-Sachs debacle. When asked about the most recent furore made over Channel 4’s controversial broadcast, Big Fat Quiz of the Year, he said that there was nothing on the show that really offended him.
“Having worked for nine years with Jonathan, I have to say that I think he is an incredibly talented broadcaster. One of the roles of comedy is to challenge and subvert the status quo, and you can never please everyone. [...] I think certain quarters of the press are always just waiting for the slightest excuse to attack comics and artists who don’t conform to their moral or political viewpoint.”
When the three other members of the group made the decision to leave, Wickenden was left the prospect of either “getting a real job” or taking on a brand new troupe of Poofkateers. He chose the latter and, though he still has “a huge amount of affection for the old Poofs”, he says that the most recent additions to the band are “a breath of fresh air”.
Their UK tour begins this February, starting with Oxford, hitting 20 different towns with a view to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe. The act will include “upbeat party numbers [...] parodies and original comedy songs with the odd dance number thrown in, including a spoof of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake [called] Swamp Lake.”
As a professionally trained dancer and musician, Wickenden tries to incorporate the music of those he admires into the act. Getting to sing a chorus of Thank You For the Music with Benny of ABBA is a major highlight for him. He jokes that Bobby (another Poofkateer) “would look great in silver high heel boots and purple eye shadow”.
Wickenden seems unphased by the change from medium to medium. Stage or TV, he says that he is happy to continue doing what he loves. He hopes that the choice of performance group name has helped “de-toxify” the word ‘poof’.
“I make no apologies for being camp, that’s how I am… but I don’t see the group as being [...] one-dimensional[...] We largely operate within the broad mainstream of light entertainment, but I think that within the group, we each have quite different personalities and at times challenge our audience with the style and content of the show.”
4 Poofs and a Piano will begin their 2013 UK Tour in The Mills Art Centre, Banbury on 14th February.
PHOTO/ Impressive PR
A city with an ancient, prestigious university, a confused road system and streets clogged with tourists and street performers seemed just the place to escape Oxford for a month. Edinburgh, however, was practically overrun by Oxford students as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival brought the brightest lights in theatre, comedy and music swarming onto the Royal Mile. People certainly noticed a heavy presence from the dark blues, with several colleagues asking if Oxford offers a degree in a cappella after having walked down the Royal Mile punctuated with the Belles, Out Of The Blue, In The Pink and the Gargoyles. With comedy acts from Oxford Revue alumni as well as the revue itself, the Imps and many others and a selection of theatre shows to rival any week in Oxford there was plenty to make any Oxonian homesick and happy.
I was working as an editor and reviewer for another publication (broadwaybaby.com) for the duration of the Fringe, which meant that Oxford’s shows were off-limits during working hours due to potential conflicts of interest (and, after expressing some healthy rivalry, Cambridge shows too). However, with such a plethora of Oxford events on the cards it was pretty much impossible to not end up seeing some and, more importantly, seeing how they measured up against the competition.
In an environment like the Fringe, with over two thousand shows battling to get bums on seats, every production team had to go above and beyond the usual Oxford marketing fare. If you’ve ever considered it vaguely annoying when you’ve been invited to a Facebook event, or noticed half of your friends profile pictures becoming poster images overnight, then be grateful you have never stumbled upon the Royal Mile at noon during Fringe. Marketing strategies ranged from actors lying screaming on the cobbles, to the half-hearted thrusting of soggy flyers. Oxonians stepped up to the challenge. Swan Song spent hours folding their flyers into origami swans, a thoughtful touch with only one downside – the swan tore itself to pieces in my bag, fortunately after I’d seen the show. There was scarcely a day I didn’t spot the Oxford Revue pressing leaflets into outstretched palms. Machinal posters were simply all over C-venues from day one. I even glimpsed a rubber dinghy being toted towards the Mile, though I’m still not sure if it was because of the revival of New Writing Festival entry Rubber Dinghy or not – that’s Fringe for you.
You might have guessed from the word ‘revival’ but it quickly became clear that Oxford’s Fringe productions were not the ‘fringe’ of Oxford – in fact, most of what was put on was exactly what you’d expect to see at the BT. This is no criticism; instead, it is a testament to the variety and proficiency of drama and comedy here. What was clear in the staging of every Oxford play I saw at Fringe was the way the constant flurry of productions being conceived here have given Oxford’s actors and directors the skills to adapt to any space – Swan Song changed venue halfway through its run with professional competence – and whether opulent or sparse the sets showed a level of thought that was impressive given the relative lack of control over staging and space that performing in a Fringe venue, used by several different production a day, entails.
The fare ranged from traditional in the Trinity Players Noel Coward plays to the strange and wonderful The Tragedie of MacClegg. This latter play, performed in a vault underneath a church that could only be accessed by walking under a bridge crowded with bins, seemed
to epitomise the makeshift spirit of Fringe and was a sell-out success. A fairly simple exploration of the anger felt, mostly from a student perspective, to Nick Clegg’s betrayals, it carried through a blunt political message with charm and comedy to an enthusiastic audience which, notably for a small student play, ranged across several generations. In a festival where ‘student’ productions are often lumped together, Oxford plays frequently rose above their peers in delivering thought-out, well-acted pieces. Sometimes we forget how good we have it.
The Oxford name undoubtedly carried some clout amongst a crowd of student productions from the UK and beyond and, fortunately enough, the productions lived up to it. The Oxford Revue, frequently compared to the perhaps slightly more famous Cambridge Footlights, triumphed with a hugely successful run, replete with five star reviews. Spin-off shows, featuring members and alumni of the group, fared less well and notably received a great deal less exposure – both Sploshy and Failure and How to Achieve It received only one review apiece, which points to both the vastness of the Fringe and the force of the Oxford reputation in pulling in press interest. It’s from that position of strength that Oxford thesps as a group can push forward to create a standard of excellence to stand future Fringe productions in good stead.
PHOTOS/Festival Fringe Society, Roxy Rezvany
Swan Song, a new play by Katie Ebner-Landy and Catherine Haines, is an exploration of the lives of some young artists who seem rather too bohemian to be true. Hains and Ebner-Landy show how the three artists Hector, Mala and Peter and their infinitely more practical friend Marie negotiate falling in and out of love while attempting to write and read each other’s lives. The play takes a relatively simply plotline and makes it very convoluted, the writing element in particular coming to the fore. Given that Ebner-Landy takes a role in the play as well, the theme of writing takes on a meta-dramatic level fairly quickly.
The characters of Swan Song appear to be the kind of effortlessly creative, clever, middle class bohemian types that have money without ever really doing anything – it’s worth noting that we never learn what Maria, the practical one, does for a living – but the writing does give us a chance to laugh at them when the first scenes; thought narrators, dressed like stereotype beat poets, show in the first scene the difference between what Mala and Hector think and what they manage to articulate. This distinction could be a little clearer to increase the humour, as frequently the pair come off as pretentious without any air of satire behind their actions – unless this is yet another irony being taken to the nth degree.
However, the writers clearly both have an excellent ear for dialogue and the cast are superb, bringing their occasionally insufferable characters to life so well that, once past the thirty minute mark and into the darker part of the story, it’s easy to get wrapped up in their strange, academic, artistic and unrealistic world. Amelia Sparling is stunning as Mala, by turns sly and vulnerable but never pinned down, while Patrick Edmond gives the most nuanced and interesting performance.
I’m still not sure why there were moments of animation and projection in a piece that otherwise depended on convincing and well directed performances from its onstage talent and these disjointed parts proved a bit of a let-down. Occasionally too the play decides to be obvious for no good reason; the poetry recital Mala gives at the end to straighten out the plot is unnecessary, as the plot hasn’t been that hard to follow.
Swan Song initially struck me as a self-consciously clever piece of writing. As it’s about writing it could hardly escape falling into that often problematic, pretentious category. Fortunately, it has one up on other self-consciously clever plays in that it is, at times, actually clever and more conscious than most of the tropes it is using or avoiding. It’s also rather moving and while it goes about its business in a rather convoluted way that, ironically, seems more tried and tired than a linear narrative, it is well written, well-acted and well worth seeing.