A packed Oxford Playhouse played host on Saturday night to the Oxford Revue and their friends – talented Oxfordian performers, the Cambridge Footlights and the professional comedian (and Oxonian), Ivo Graham.
The night, it has to be said, did start somewhat slowly. Whilst he’s funny enough to have one the ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ award at the Edinburgh festival in 2009, Graham did not seem entirely comfortable in the role of compere – a very different skillset from a standard stand-up routine. Whilst he had his moments and was certainly not un-entertaining, improvised banter with an audience member about the Oxford Greek Play felt a little forced.
The acts that followed, however, paid testament to the creative vitality that abounds in Oxford. Opening was a song parodying both cis males and Cuntry Living. This was followed by a very cleverly devised skit by Alex Fox, who played three members of an aristocratic dynasty: the ex-Bullingdon paterfamilias, his cocky and entitled eldest son, and the youngest son – possessed of an inferiority complex as large as his brother’s ego. The piece required a lot of energy and Fox certainly had it. A highlight was the father’s uncontrollable descent into the animalistic grunting chant of ‘Buller, Buller, Buller’ – ‘it’s an ordinary club for ordinary people’, the father explains.
Despite this, the laughs came the thickest I thought when the comedians forgot Oxford and student life. Undoubtedly the best act of the first half was George McGoldrick whose collections of stories from unusual angles, delivered with the coolest of deadpans, elicited real belly laughs from the audience. McColdrick was clever and original, sharing with us the diary entries of a boy on the Hogwarts Express in the Philosopher’s Stone. Initially excited, he comes close to starvation during the journey because the ‘special one bought all the sweeties’.
Closing the first half were the Revue’s Cantabrian counterparts, the Footlights. Sadly, it didn’t feel like they were giving it their best shot. Whilst it is only fair to point out that the Tabs were neck-deep in exams last week, I couldn’t help but feel that they could have done better. The two representatives of the Footlights Oliver Taylor and [NAME] felt under-rehearsed at times. In their sketches, there were many great – and funny – ideas, but I felt that they could have done more to milk some of them for their full comic potential.
Without a doubt, however, the second half in which the Revue took over from their friends, was the strongest of the two. Ivo Graham was on better form when opening, winning the audience over by buying a random member a whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
The Revue were slick and professional. Having beaten the Footlights at home at the Cambridge Union comedy debate earlier this term, they managed it again on Saturday. Funny in the tradition of Monty Python and Mitchell and Webb, their material was immaculately delivered. Performing a collection of material from their recent successful shows, the Revue provided a fantastic introduction to what they do. Saturday was, to my shame and embarrassment, the first time that I’d seen a Revue show and I was astonished by the talent that was on display.
With an assortment of traditional sketches and musical comedy, the Revue had some moments of real tears in your eyes laughter. Particular favourites included Georgia Bruce’s song based on a GCSE French oral, Jack Chisnall’s performance as a door in one sketch, and a sketch in which a politician tries desperately to be ordinary but simply can’t (he clutches a pack of digestives strangely in his hand, banging it on the table for emphasis).
Certified BNOC Will Hislop was part of a troupe that really didn’t have a weak link. Already mentioned, Georgia Bruce had some hilarious parts, performing a skit with David Meredith that saw Bruce as a news anchor frequently lose connection with her reporter on the ground. Jack Chisnall – Bruce’s singing partner in Cut the Mustard – not only played a very good straight man, but his timing was also devilishly precise; Barney Fishwick delivered an outrageously funny monologue of erotic fiction – in which John Longcock, randy postman, ‘did the sex for twelve hours’.
Overall, whilst the first half did have some areas to be improved on, the Revue alone made the evening one that was not to be missed. Like their friends, they are an exceptionally talented group whose future appearances will continue no doubt to be highlights in terms to come. Departing for Edinburgh over the summer, it seems hard to believe that they will not take the notoriously dour Scots by force.
The Oxford Revue and Friends was performed at the New Theatre on Saturday 6th June.
In Sarah Ruhl’s play Dear Elizabeth, Chiasmus Productions have taken on a real challenge. Almost entirely comprised of letters between the great American poets Robert Lowell (played by Olivia Madin) and Elizabeth Bishop (Alex Sage), the play places an enormous burden on the actors playing the two. They have to bring what is essentially a collection of monologues to life.
If the performances at the BT Studio this week are anything like those that I observed in rehearsals, then this is a play that could really be something special. Both Madin and Sage breathed compelling life into the letters, reminding a generation that is so use to the all-so-easy media of Facebook and Skype how difficult – and yet rewarding – the maintenance of a long-distance friendship through letters could be.
Separated by miles in an age in which air travel was still an exotic rarity, Dear Elizabeth shows Lowell and Bishop’s discussions on poetry, mutual acquaintances (Dylan Thomas witty and sweary put-downs, staying in Hemingway’s house) and loneliness. Written by great craftsmen of the English language, however, the letters themselves show immense eloquence and a richness of good humour.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of Ruhl’s play that I could see in rehearsal, however, was less the use of the poets’ letters themselves, but more the meetings between the two that the playwright has imagined. In these meetings because of not despite all that has been said in the letters a gulf has opened up between the two characters in which there is so much to be said that very little can be said.
Instead, this sentiment is explored in beautiful prose in the letters themselves. Whilst taking many of the letters simply verbatim and allowing them to speak, as it were, for themselves via the mouthpiece of the actors, Ruhl’s skill lies in her ability to jump between time and place. Cleverly selecting the correspondence – and poems – that she employs, Ruhl’s play movingly depicts the difficulties of lengthy separation; at one point, Lowell berates Bishop for only finding the time to write a postcard.
In the rehearsal, Madin and Sage sat at opposite ends of a large table – directly facing each other so as to emphasise simultaneously the distance with which they are separated and their closeness in thought and spirit. In many ways, this seems to be the main theme – other than the sheer beauty of some of the letters – that the play seeks to explore: the extent to which a friendship largely formed by letters can be simultaneously close and distant.
In the hands of such a dedicated and convincing cast, this promises to be a gem at the BT Studio that is worth seeing.
Punk Rock is a thought-provoking play about an emotional group of students under a lot of stress; they are studying for their A-Levels. It is a realistic portrait of the constraints forced upon the young in society, despite their adulthood being merely a year or two away. In Punk Rock, they are made to follow a timetable, respond to a bell, dress appropriately and obey the social order.
The conversations that arise from the characters in the play are all by-products of this; their conversations possess in them a need to escape the monotony of their everyday existence. Lily, the new girl, describes how she burns herself because she likes the feeling, William, a seemingly bright student, compulsively lies, and Bennett – the bully – tries to exercise what little power he can by violently controlling those around him. These constraints, in part, drive our protagonist, William, to do something absolutely terrible, his reason for it being, in a world where he can do so little, “simply because [he] could”.
A greatly effective aspect of Sunscreen’s production of Punk Rock is the manic stylised interludes in-between some of the scenes. Loud rock music and strobe lighting came on and all the actors apart from one creepily don white masks, focusing on the unmasked actor’s deepest fear, allowing the audience a glimpse at what drives the characters. These scenes were a lot of fun not just for the audience, but also, it seemed, for the actors.
Praise has to be given to Hamish Forbes for his convincing portrayal of William – an extremely challenging character to portray. The highlight of the play was most definitely his closing monologue – chilling yet spectacularly delivered. Keelan Kember interpreted the role of Bennett in an interesting fashion. Instead of playing Bennett as brash and loud – as would have been so easy – he took on a much calmer demeanour than the role suggested, his voice sounding gentle at moments even as the most disgusting words came out of his mouth.
This play, it should be mentioned, is not just a serious work but is rich in comic moments. George Varley (Chadwick) and Ali Ackland-Snow (Cissi) deliver some hilarious lines with great comic timing. The audience was, by turns, induced into shocked silence and uproarious laughter.
One of my criticisms however is that in this production of Punk Rock, the play’s dénouement was not quite as tense and terrifying as it should have been. This, sadly, was mainly due to a very unrealistic prop – a toy gun – that simply irritated, distracting when one should have been captivated by the terror of the situation. Instead, the audience was constantly reminded that the scenes on stage were just that: on stage. We should, at this point, have been shocked into the desired state of catharsis that was, unfortunately, not forthcoming.
All in all, however, the brilliant writing of the play alone is enough to make Punk Rock worth watching. Competently performed by this talented cast, Punk Rock is very much to be recommended.
They say that the essence of drama is conflict, and conflict there is a plenty in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. The claustrophobia of the Burton Taylor Studio is made to feel even more close by the cast of four (one of whom only features very briefly) leaving one no chance to avert one’s eyes from the painfully strained relationships that are portrayed on stage.
In Rosmersholm, Ibsen depicts Victorian society (or its Norwegian equivalent) questioning its seemingly rock-solid foundations to the point of collapse. The free-thinking John Rosmer (Christian Amos) – a pastor who has renounced his Christian faith – struggles with his conscience and the weight of his illustrious ancestors, whose photographs loom ominously over the stage, to become a figurehead for radicalism. His friend and brother-in-law, Dr Kroll (Iarla Manny) attempts to prevent Rosmer from abandoning the beliefs with which he was raised and that his ancestors embodied. At Rosmer’s side is Rebecca West (Clio Takas) – the emancipated woman with whom he lives; despite her emancipated status, Rebecca still seems shackled by the society in which she lives. Lurking in the background is the ghost of Rosmer’s deceased wife, who has committed suicide before the play’s opening in a supposed bout of mental illness.
Christian Amos did a good job at depicting the moral trepidation of Rosmer. He is aware of the momentous path that he has undertaken in abandoning his faith and traditional morality to become a torch-bearer for the progressives. Whilst he did at times tend towards a Nick Cleggish over-earnestness, this suited the personality of his character well. Harry Lukakis put in a strong cameo as the free-thinking newspaper editor who attempts to shape Rosmer’s beliefs to the benefit of his movement. Clio Takas was skilled in portraying the mixture of flippancy, fearlessness and sincerity of Rebecca. She, like Rosmer, struggles to come to terms with the enormous transformation that will be brought on by her subscription to a progressive belief-system.
Of particular note, however, was Larla Manny as Dr Kroll. Kroll’s lines berating his old friend for abandoning what he had once stood for were, in Manny’s mouth, all dripping in sarcasm. One could, in Manny’s performance, really see a friendship that has been fractured by irreconcilable differences of opinion.
In terms of production, the director, Exir Kamadabadi, made good use of the Burton Taylor space. His set was sparse, but not flat – carefully composed, interesting the viewer but not detracting from Ibsen’s drama. Of slight annoyance, however, was the presence of a broken telephone as an intercom system. The telephone – without handle – was pointless; allusions to a studio apartment in the set were so slight as to be meaningless; the play would not have suffered from the loss of this pointless distraction.
All in all, Rosmersholm was a compelling piece of theatre. The darkness of the relationships within the play make it a difficult feat to accomplish, nonetheless the cast acquitted themselves admirably.
Any poor soul who has tried to coordinate their cast and crew’s timetables will, through the haze of google docs and doodle polls, almost definitely have screamed, ‘WHY?!’ Between this ‘non-negotiable’ class and that ‘compulsory’ lecture, we might start to think that putting on a play was nearly impossible at university. Yet, each term, tens of productions make their mark on the Oxford University drama scene. From exciting new writing projects at the Burton Taylor Studio to phenomenal musical spectacles at the Playhouse, there is a wealth of determination among the student body. We are ready to juggle degrees with funding meetings and forgo Bridge for late night rehearsals, but why?
If you haven’t heard of Phoebe Fox already, you are guaranteed to be hearing a lot about her soon. Gracing our cinema screens this year, Phoebe Fox will be starring in The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, the sequel to the adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, featuring Daniel Radcliffe. On the stage side of things, Phoebe has played Lear’s Cordelia at the Almeida opposite Jonathan Pryce, and has worked at both the Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre in London.