The End is Just the Beginning
Devised and Presented by the Tower Youth Theatre
September 12th - 15th, 2001
The Tower Youth Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Directors : Katie Morgan, Peter Miller
In-house review by Keith Hill
Keith Hill was always one of those actors who thought improvising only happened when someone dried, until he joined the Tower in 1993. He still can't do it for toffee.
The Youth Theatre does not do things quite the way that the rest of the company does. The only scripted show they have put on was last year's Scenes from a Dream. This year they reverted to a freer format perhaps descended from the inaugural show, Full of It.
The show announces itself as "devised entirely from the improvisations and ideas of the group over a two month period." Just think about that for a moment. Productions usually rehearse for about seven weeks, intensively. They start with a script over which a professional has spent months slaving. The cast has been selected at auditions by a director who has already been living with the play for weeks. This happens some time before the start of rehearsals. In the interim the actor has time to go over the script, form ideas for the director to diplomatically discount, and imagine a set which is nothing like the actual design.
Not the youth theatre. They started a fractionally longer rehearsal period (at the beginning of the holiday period) with absolutely nothing. They could not fall back particularly on vast experience. By the time of performance the group consisted of 13 individuals ranging in age from 14 to 21 (including the two directors).
Given this intimidating prospect, the group's decision to keep within a clearer plot framework than Full of It, can only be sensible. Ben is glued to his mobile phone trying to track down a number of women called Claire Andrews. Is he a dangerous obsessive? What will his Various "targets" make of it? Not surprisingly, most of them are, to say the least, cautious. One, who is being harassed by what seems to be an abusive ex-partner, is the most frightened and hostile. She turns out to be, as it were, the "real" Claire Andrews, who we finally discover is Ben's long lost sister.
As Ben works his way along the list, the show's camera angle veers off to light on people peripherally involved in his search taking time to speculate on how apparently insignificant changes in the succession of events might affect the outcome. This was done by a series of almost Groundhog Day style reprises of particular scenes. This approach has its strengths and weaknesses.
In many places it allowed scope to be given to some wonderfully brave and inventive takes on situations. One thinks of Emma Rogers in one of her three incarnations, and Chi Ugoala as her incarcerated young offender son, going through the nightmare of the Offenders' Institute social visit. First came cosy, sweet optimism for the prospects on release, re-enacted some minutes later with surly, cocky alienation on his side, and shrill, baffled, hopeless loss of patience on hers. A very real and convincing picture of the outset of a life of crime.
On other occasions the variations were so subtle as to leave the audience behind. Perhaps the group were trying to hit too many targets. This is one of the downsides of impro. In a scripted play, one knows what comes next (or should, ahem) and the peaks of a scene are usually clearly laid out for you. In impro like this, one has to grab the important moment as the opportunity presents itself armed only with a general plan or destination , and a few pre-determined key or signal lines. The trust and team work required is phenomenal. One player out of line and the machine runs very unevenly indeed.
I saw little sign of that. Some climaxes were undermined by a little meandering, and I gather that nerves affected the first half somewhat, but the maturity and submersion of self in team were highly impressive.
The best moments came in the number of hugely successful set pieces which the group had assembled. I particularly admired the burger shop, if not from hell, then at least from purgatory, and the caff in which five simultaneous conversations ebbed and swirled, short snatches of each coming to the fore to form a relay of doubles entendres, - er - peaking with the cry of "and then I realised it was this guy who had his dick out", delivered to stunned tea-shop silence. Delightful, and technically faultless each time that it was done.
Ensemble aside, everyone had their moment(s), and I can only apologise if the ensuing name-check seems mechanical. I pick, almost at random : Joe Radcliffe as the the burger bar's idlest petty corporal, or the exhaustingly optimistic dooorstep evangelist; Chi Uguola's frighteningly realistic violent assault on the latter; Anna Berrill, swivelling from stroppy schoolgirl to Ben's long suffering girlfriend; Roisin Conaty, Nicola O'Connell and Cheryl Ko as a trio of gormiess lads; Sophie Green's reaction to the mobile phone call out of the blue; Danielle Kummer as the horrifyingly useless Victim Support counsellor, in the face of Roisin Conaty's howling, terrorised victim; Esther Boateng's military style aerobics instructor, mobile phone never switched off'; Emma Rogers' sarky, desperate mother.
Only Ben Morris had the very different task of maintaining one character from start to finish. His Ben was likeable and far from brash, and one wanted him to succeed in his quest. His one outburst of obsessive passion was a little brief and sudden. Was it only there to sustain the audience by planting a doubt as to whether he was actually a nutter? A little more of the sort, placed a little more in context, and the audience would have perhaps sympathised with him, rather than observing him curiously.
That, of course, is a deeply unfair criticism, We are talking about an eighteen year old actor busking the role on which everything depends. The whole thing might have looked entirely different on another night. That is one of the joys of improvised theatre.
The directors, Katie Morgan and Peter Miller, who steered the whole project with minimal intervention from seven named members of the main company, have thoroughly earned the right to retire to a darkened room until their digestions return to normal. Both intend to go into the profession, and are veterans of previous Youth Theatre shows.
Next time they do this sort of thing (and there must be one, surely) more attention will be paid to the business of vocal projection, and shaping a scene clearly. They will perhaps keep it yet simpler,and handle it with greater firmness, so that every thing that every performer does goes towards a clear objective.
Impro is hugely freeing. It can produce some of the truest acting there is (which is why crusty old actors like me are scared of doing it) but it still needs to be steered. To see this sort of work in progress so bravely exposed at the Tower is profoundly important.
The project is something in which the company (and very especially Sheila Burbidge, Lesley Scarth, Stephen Ley and Roger Beaumont, who provided vital nous, technical expertise, advice and elbow grease in the closing stages) can take pleasure.
One therefore wonders why so few did. The number of members in the theatre on the Thursday was even more lamentable than usual, while the cast sales accounted for well over half the audience. The Youth Theatre is vital to us. It feeds us with much younger people than we have can otherwise attract. It reaches a much younger audience, who might get to like the experience and safeguard our future.
Its existence (and partial autonomy) demonstrate our commitment to something more than having a jolly nice time, and give us badly needed credibility with local authorities and potential sponsors without which we have no future, so could we please, ladies and gentlemen, muck in, at least to the extent of the price of a ticket? End of rant.
The End is Just the Beginning, indeed.