The Barn Theatre,
25 Bluehouse Lane, Oxted, Surrey
RH8 0AA.

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Southern Counties Drama Festival 2014


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24th February - 1st March 2014 (In Memory of Martin Patrick)

After a warm and thoroughly entertaining welcome from Peter Calver (Festival Chairman), the Festival launched into the first of 15 productions representing the Southern Counties and we, (the lucky audience), sat back in the immaculately prepared Barn Theatre and prepared to be entertained. What follows here are the personal views of a regular SCDF actor whose opinions - it is hoped - may add something to the review process of the participating societies.

Monday 24th February

Bletchingley Players - "Cafe Society" by Ayshe Raif
Set in a run down East End "Caff" in the early 80's which is due to close shortly, the Director and team created the aura of such an establishment but could perhaps have aimed for more decrepitude. Apart from a notice informing of the closure, the table linen and surroundings seemed somehow too fresh and clean to add credibility. The cast of three regular customers, ably supported by a somewhat sullen and reluctant "waitress" soon set the tone for the piece and apart from a slight attack of "festival nerves" in the opening few minutes, the play proceeded at a pace. The theme of the play looks at the break up of an intimate group of three old (and somewhat eccentric) friends, due to circumstances beyond their ability to control. A return - on several occasions - as to where those of the group who would remain in the area could meet in the future was explored in some depth (none of these alternatives sounded in the least alluring incidentally). Although the author clearly signposted early some of the twists in the plot which were to follow, thereby reducing the impact of some of the emotions which the cast wanted to portray, this was not a fault of Director or cast. This was generally a tight and well presented production, with plenty of material for the audience to grasp and enjoy.

Burnt Ash Drama Association - "David Copperfield" Part 1 - by Charles Dickens adapted by P.M. Thomas
The play follows the early years of David Copperfield from a boy to a man and transcends the years, whilst embracing the multiplicity of settings and characters that Dickens so skillfully draws. This adaptation required the actors to adopt multiple roles and to convince us, (the audience), immediately of the new identity and characteristics that each role required. Because this adaptation retained so much content and the festival timing is critical, sometimes the pace was driven too hard to the detriment of (albeit) familiar Dickensian dialogue, which was hard to follow in places. In general however, here we saw an accomplished and confident cast working together unselfishly to promote David to the forefront (his rightful place after all).

A useful multi functional set with some superb visual impact, I particularly liked the idea of Barkis and the cart, but was disappointed this was set at the back of the stage not right at the front. All in all, a tremendous undertaking which almost succeeded in bringing this much loved character to life

Tuesday 25th February

Alternate Shadows - "Steam Radio" by Peter Higginbotham
Set in a radio studio, a group of professional actors (some experienced and some perhaps not) are rehearsing and subsequently performing a parody of a Noel Coward play. The plot follows the descent into chaos which follows when the Sound Engineer gets stuck in a lift and the cast and Producer agree that - in true theatrical tradition - " the show must go on", albeit without him. The "control room" was a set within a set, where the Director and Sound Engineer acted their socks off during the rehearsal stage of the production and from where the hapless Director later tried to exert control over the bickering cast, whilst simultaneously attempting to introduce the sound effects in the performance phase, for which he had neither ability or training (or union card), the result being - chaotic farce...! The actors struggled heroically to maintain the pace towards the close, but tried too hard to force the humour to rise to the surface. A clever piece, bravely attempted but where perhaps more attention to the choreography of the closing 15 minutes might have allowed the audience to join in the fun.

Merstham Amateur Dramatic Society - "Don't Blame it on the Boots" by N.J. Warburton
Basically, a ghost story set around a pair of boots worn by an actor of renown (since deceased) whose daughter insists are worn by the actor playing the part of "the ghost" for a production of Hamlet. The centrepiece of this production are the boots themselves and the oversize feet (and libido) of the Ghost. Personally, the boots were not credible, being modern, short and apparently fur-lined rather than long (knee length) traditional period-costume boots. I also had concerns in some of the intimate scenes (particularly that with Ophelia) over the age gap between the women and the male lead. My own view being, that although an amusing piece, the plot was too obvious and that much more thought was necessary in terms of production and casting.

Alternate Shadows - "The Canary Cage" by Diana Raffle
A psychological thriller through and through. Set seemingly uninspiringly in a suburban cellar, the entire audience was in thrall from the outset, a woman, clearly in some form of deep traumatic distress, occupies the stage and holds our complete attention until the arrival of her niece and a neighbour. The three women find themselves locked in the confines of the cellar with little hope of discovery and none of escape. The play was full of macabre twists, turns and revelations and played out before an audience almost too afraid to breathe themselves, for fear of breaking the spell. Three confident performances by three very good actors who listened and reacted to each other in a completely believable drama. I must particularly commend the claustrophobic set, which could so easily have been played on a cluttered stage. This company however chose to construct a practical staircase leading to a half landing behind the locked door, this contrivance immediately placed the audience in the 4th wall of a subterranean cellar.
Best Stage Presentation

Wednesday 26th February

Tunbridge Theatre and Arts Club - "Writes and Wrongs" by Andy Taylor
The front room of a suburban house is the venue for a regular Writer's Circle meeting. Enter a new prospective member with a secret which will devastate the group's leader. Described as a thought provoking comedy, the static nature of the piece, with the cast seated in a semi circle, did little to excite the eye or imagination, some moves seemed either contrived or pointless. My overall impression being that this was a very static and rather wordy play. There were some witty and acerbic exchanges between the leader and her acolytes especially in the early part of the production, which added much needed light and shade to the piece. It was however a competent group performance, with all characters clearly defined and convincingly portrayed.

Mole Valley Scriptwriters Group - "Satin Doll" by Tony Earnshaw
Set in what will become a Jazz Themed coffee bar in a city, this piece sets out to explore the relationship between two people whose lives and loves over a twenty year period are inextricably entwined. The prospective Jazz venue is his passion and the device by which he admits he hopes to win her back. The idea though of somehow recreating their shared past (in which she had sung and he had played), is her worst nightmare, as she sees that such an idea has no place in the present time or their future. Intriguingly, it is their past that holds the key in deciding the outcome of this emotional tussle. The ebb and flow of power between the two actors was quite remarkable to witness, she worshipped him and he adored her, but could they deal with the accumulated baggage of those twenty years and somehow make it together? By the end we were willing them to try and make a go of it, but I for one am not at all certain that they did. Passion versus love - the jury is still out.............!

The Oxted Players - "The Whores Tale" by Archie Wilson
Set in a seedy bedroom, a prostitute waits for a customer, but this "punter" has dark plans of his own. A play of shifting power and malevolence, but with a twist at the end, nothing is what it seems here. The prostitute and her customer negotiate a deal which sees the man empowered and the woman defenceless, but with consummate skill the roles are reversed when a second woman appears. Focus and menace was sustained throughout, the final twist was well timed and choreographed. Altogether a disturbingly enjoyable production.
Best Actress - Ghislaine Bowden
Best Actor - Alan Webber
Best Director - Chris Bassett

Thursday 27th February

Glow Theatre Group - "Talking with Angels" by Neil Duffield
This is a challenging piece of theatre, tackled head on and fearlessly. This production was set on different levels which added considerable visual interest. A piece on this scale requires precise direction and choreography, which for the most part the group achieved, no shortage of movement here! A strong set of "voices" accompanied Joan, some silent (Angels), whilst others portrayed the entire population of France, together with its nobility plus an English army for good measure. Altogether a memorable depiction by this company, of the short but emphatic life of one of France's greatest heroines.

Heathfield Youth Drama - "Chatroom" by Enda Walsh
Set in cyberspace, "Chatroom" sets out to explore the difficult world young people occupy without becoming in any way an "issues play". Five teenagers engage with each other from the safety of their own rooms, in a space where nothing is "off-limits" many topics are discussed and examined. There is tremendous humour in the banter of the early exchanges, enjoyed by the entire audience. Enter teenager number six who soon inserts the concept of his own suicide into the chatroom for discussion. This is the turning point of the play, where allegiances are formed which either offer moral support to the newcomer or alternatively encourage him to "end it all". The opposing factions pursue their aims relentlessly or remorselessly dependent upon their viewpoint. The cast drew out every nuance of the script with honesty and integrity and gave faultless and highly commendable performances throughout. The closing (filmed) sequence, whilst well executed - jars. This not withstanding, this was an excellent and thought proving insight into the complex world teenagers inhabit and underscored for me, the potential dangers unregulated chatrooms present.

Friday 28th February

Heathfield Youth Drama - "The Whole Truth" by Ray Jenkins
Set in a school drama studio, the teacher has set the class of 11/12 year olds an improvisation exercise. The appointed group leader decides to construct a trial in a Courtroom and the play explores relationships between the 13 or so principal players as the Court takes shape, to which Class 7C helpfully provide a further 20 people......! This production crackled from first to last with exuberant energy, which could so easily have become chaotic, instead of which we enjoyed a well disciplined and fluid team of young people eager to give of their best. The play built seamlessly from first to last and held the imagination of the audience throughout.
Adjudicator's Award - Ivo Salwey

Glow Theatre Group - "Small Fry" by Neil Duffield
Another large cast production, (26 actors this time), who set out to entertain with an allegory of the takeover in 1988 of R.J.R Nabisco (made into the novel "Barbarians at the Gate" - a classic example of corporate greed). In this production the cast are formed into three groups; Predators, Scavengers and Small-Fry. The actors are animal-like and their costumes colour coded to represent their respective groups. The two main groups thrust and parry back and forth, seeking to gain an advantage over the other. The moves are highly stylised and ensemble vocal chants are delivered crisply. This group show us in a simple but effective way what happens when morality is confronted with unbridled greed. A thoroughly enjoyable tale, crisply directed and beautifully delivered.

Heathfield Drama Club - "Obsessed" by Mike Newbold
A new girl arrives at school and is soon befriended by a senior boy who is protective of her and falls in love with her, eventually becoming obsessed with the idea of the two running away. He believes her to be living in a children's home because her mother is ill and her father abroad, there is however a much darker version of the truth. The girl is in reality living in care because her father is an abusive drunkard and her mother a prostitute. The young couple carry on a clandestine affair, meeting in secret whilst the boy's obsession with her takes over his life. They plan to run away together but are reported and separated before they can escape. The terrible truths emerge. A difficult set of subjects, but ones which resonate today in the light of similar well publicised events, abusive parents, gang violence, peer pressures, weak and ineffectual Social Workers are all subjects explored in this piece. A strong cast brought to life the uncertainties experienced by young lives damaged by domestic circumstances.
Best Young Actress - Natasha Cooper (Jo)

Saturday 1st March

Glow Theatre Group - "Blood Brothers" by Willy Russell
This play explores the concept of human development when influenced by external factors. Here, twins have been separated at birth and we follow their progress from the point of separation, through the years as their lives keep touching, to the dreadful climax. All facets of life are explored in some depth as the inevitable jealousy comes to the fore. The Brothers each gave tremendous performances and managed to hold the characteristics they first showed as children throughout the play. I particularly liked the team of narrators who held the action together and provided the continuing links throughout. Altogether an excellent production.
Best Young Actor(s) - Jamie Patterson "Mickey" and Sean Wareing "Eddie"
Best Youth Production

Sevenoaks Players - "The Trial" by Anthony Booth
A play set in almost any modern theatre of warfare where the urban guerrillas are investigating a suspected traitor in their midst and bring the suspect to a trial where the verdict is never in doubt, "death". There is a reluctant witness present to ensure the case is widely reported and lessons learned by the population at large. There is a prosecutor and an enforcer who will see matters are concluded effectively and a "grass" who has informed against a young girl who is now terrified for her life. As the case unfolds, the witness finds the courage to speak out against the "grass" and the balance of culpability shifts away from the girl. A modern tale of paramilitary violence and retribution. A strong and competent cast, who knew how to deliver powerful emotions. Compact and compelling drama.
Festival Runner Up

In summary, a very varied week of strong drama, where many companies were pushing the boundaries and where inevitably some succeeded brilliantly and others perhaps have to re-think strategies.

Chris Butler