Bands of Brothers
Posted on Fri 23 Mar 2012 by Ciaran McConville
Lucy Hughes, head of drama at Tiffin Boys, very kindly invited me to adjudicate the school’s house drama competition last Wednesday. I didn’t really know what to expect and, having worked a lot recently on Ibsen, I suppose I was set for something quite heady and curriculum-based. Far from it. The evening was epic (curtain up at 7pm and down at 9:30pm with no interval) and constructed around the most extraordinary, Pythonesque ideas. The plays, each running at about twenty-five minutes, were written, directed and performed by students with casts ranging in age from Years 6 and 7 up to A2. They had rehearsed them in their spare time, which was an achievement in itself, given what I know about the workload placed on students these days.
One play imagined a world of angry cannibal zombie pensioners; not so very far from the truth, I thought. Another dramatised Monopoly, in a surreal chase around London (with a brilliant performance by Finbar Fitzgerald as 'Top Hat', a sympathetic clown with a compulsion to sing musical theatre ballads). The third play explored the relationships between a group of oppressed and terrorised flowers whose pollen was stolen every night by the dictator Gadaffodil. The fourth was a surreal heist thriller with a memorable death-by-Bounty-bar. Not how I would like to go, thanks very much.
But the play of the night for me was a brilliant piece called Booming Bon-Bombs, by Elias Rebeiz, about a brand of popping candy that is chemically altered into a lethal military weapon by a warmongering but PR-savvy Prime Minister. The script conjured the mischievousness of Roald Dahl, with a father-son relationship at its heart, tightly constructed but unexpected jokes, and a healthy cynicism of those hungry for power. It worked fabulously as a fast-paced satire on the vanity and moral bankruptcy of politicians. I honestly thought it was worthy of one of the Comic Strip specials that helped push alternative comedy to the fore during the 1980s. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, as did a packed audience, when the Prime Minister, standing charismatically on a chair and surrounded by tabloid hacks, reassured the nation that the popping candy was entirely safe, only for a bereaved father to pull out a half-eaten packet of the lethal sweets and instruct him to back up his promises with actions. “Go out with a bang, Prime Minister.”
I so hope that Elias and all the playwrights continue to write. They clearly have a lot of talent.
Regular readers of this blog (that would be me and Doug, our website manager, who has to make sure I don’t post grumpy) will know that I feel quite strongly about grading drama and offering it to young people as a competitive activity. The Tiffin House Drama Competition certainly had a massive trophy on offer, but I hope that the actors, writers, directors and designers who didn’t pick up a prize left happy in the knowledge that they had entertained and gripped a hall full of strangers for no less than two and a half hours. The levels of energy, talent and creativity were astonishing from all involved, not least Lucy Hughes, who organised the whole thing.
I watched Propeller’s Henry V on Thursday in place of a cancelled rehearsal of The Crucible (we have no space in this theatre and I can’t bear it when I read in the local press that the building is empty most of the time – how do they know? I never seen them here). It was such an exciting production. I’m too late to persuade you to see them at the Rose, but please do check out their tour and travel if you have to.
I know that Henry V is a favourite for many, but I’m never quite sure how to deal with it. Is it propaganda? Is it about a ‘band of brothers’ or a single warrior-king? Is it historical docudrama, or a comment on the nature of war? It’s probably all those things and much more, and I’m sure a brighter person could explain it to me, but in the end I find it a little unmoving. Henry isn’t an easy hero to like, and the romantic ending feels unearned and in bad taste after all the slaughter. It seems to be a play of great speeches and set-pieces, a play of great parts rather than a satisfying whole (please feel free to disagree). However, with their massive scaffold set, combat-fatigued ensemble, punchy staging and very human characterisations, Propeller held me gripped throughout.
The Winter’s Tale is one of my absolute favourites, and, again, I really enjoyed Propeller’s production. Acts 1 to 3 were suitably terrifying and the sheer silliness of Act 4 didn’t jar at all, perhaps because the cast so clearly enjoyed the playing of all of it. I was really pleased to see Karl Davies as the clown. He was in one of my plays back in 2008 and I think he’s a lovely man and a really terrific actor.
The Winter’s Tale is a long old piece (curtain up at 7:30pm and down at 10:40pm, with an interval) and it was great to see that the company could hold such a large audience for the whole, challenging, epic three hours. I think it’s fair to say that it was a gift they shared with the Tiffin boys.