Drama graduate showcases needn’t always be terribly serious matters from beginning to end and proving that exact point was E15’s full company in a fun opening number, entitled Handel Bars (lyrics and music by Handel and Sell) - a self-mocking, many tongues-in-cheeks ditty which was as unexpected as it was enjoyable. It certainly set an altogether relaxed tone for the main event to come, though when the company sang heartily about “all the talent to come”, you could only hope expectations would be lived up to - not least their own.
Given the rousing, fun start, Robert Carragher and John Fricker as Max and Topher in an adaptation from Tom Dicillo’s Double Whammy, clearly appeared intent on keeping the early momentum going. Thye both used the Criterion’s spacious stage to move around well, for the most part managing to take the audience’s attention with them. It was Fricker who struck the more unusual figure, possessing an almost awkward yet intriguing persona, and combining with Carragher to make this piece one you remembered even at the end of the showcase.
Not quite so memorable, yet still competent was Inside Out (by Kat Joyce) with Ian Street as housebound, panic attack-prone Billy annoying the life out of Annie, played with conviction by Sian Breckin - but in a scene you felt had the emotional mileage to tug at the heart-strings a little more.
Many student takes on Joe Orton’s Loot offer little in the way of change (no pun intended), but in Dillan Rankin, this at least had an effective no-frills trilbied Truscott who clearly enjoyed playing opposite Aaron Bay Parkin as Hal who ‘fesses comically to a crime. Often seen maybe, but this was one of the better ‘homages’ to Orton’s classic, not least as both characters got the black comedy pretty much on the button.
Less obvious, and by definition perhaps braver dramatic choices such as This Is Our Youth (by Kenneth Lonergan) are always welcome, and both Susan Crothers as Jessica and Simon Carroll-Jones as Warren acquitted themselves very well. From the moment she suggested “Presents are always nice”, Crothers’ character seemingly had the whole female audience with her, her performance growing, while to his credit Carroll-Jones as the prevaracating, nervous Warren made for interesting, if uncomfortable viewing.
Another brave decision was to put four graduate talents into one melting pot, said pot being a piece from Gong Donkeys (by Richard Cameron), an unsettling piece possessing a whole gamut of emotions and a variety of acting styles to contemplate. As good as Gwyneth Owen-Pullin and Edd Hunter were, come the end it was Elliott Inglese as David and Oliver Chatham as the traumatised Gobbo who stood out. Given the strength of the cast, that is splitting hairs, but it is based on such impressions - indeed lasting impressions - that post-showcase calls are made by agents and casting directors.
Then, with Good Will Hunting (adapted by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), it was back to the most tried and trusted showcase format of a duologue with Rebecca Elise as Skylar, paired with Brogan West as Will. With Elise’s character finding it impossible to click, as the rejection denouement came it proved crushing for Elise’s character - the scene clinically and well executed by both.
As yet, the showcase had not produced any real hearty laughter, but that was soon corrected with an adaptation of Nightlines (by Steven Moffat) featuring Sara Verhagen, James Barnes, Rose Romain and Lloyd Grayshon, who as Sally, Patrick, Susan and Steve respectfully, just about stole the first half of the show with admirable comic timing and a collectively sharp sense of the absurd - not an easy dramatic combination to pull off. This built well and finished strongly, Grayshon being perhaps the pick of a talented bunch.
Less joyful, at least in terms of material, was the somewhat harrowing tale that unfolded in Scenes from the Big Picture (by Owen McCafferty) with Mark Breeze as Joe Hynes and Erin Davies as Maeve Hynes, the latter apparently having lost her mind and stolen a baby, only for it to later transpire as a ploy to wring some home truths out of Joe. A scene then which adeptly put the audience through an emotional wringer, much to both actors’ credit.
Having appeared bizarrely, though fleetingly as a monkey - not so much a walk-on part as lope-on part - Ben Wigzell then stood more upright to take the role of John in Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, along with Sian Breckin as Julie and Ruth Cataroche as Christine. A popular piece at student showcases, this take had all the necessary ingredients of an upstairs/downstairs love triangle going pear-shaped, the bitter recriminations making for enjoyable dra
ma and the well-judged, resigned hurt of Cataroche’s character the perfect complement to Breckin’s more vitriolic earlier rantings.
A little harder to get into, but ultimately worth the effort, was Dust (by Michael T Folie) and with Ellie Prendergast and James Bentley mulling over just what makes relationships between the sexes tick, a conversation you suspected was always likely to flounder. With some strange analogies along the way, the discussion certainly struck a few chords with the audience, that being proof indeed that the piece worked.
Anything taken from Made In Spain (by Tony Grounds) requires full-on characterisations and not least, good comic ability from all actors involved - those being Abby O’Leary, Allyson Addo and Polly Eachus. From the opening moments, this was evidently well cast, the three Costa criminals’ other halves bouncing the constant fun lines off one another with professional ease, Eachus just having the edge when it came to delivery, immersing herself splendidly in her part as the trio’s drippiest member. A close call though, Addo and O’Leary contributing much to the piece’s success.
Just seeing the billing of A Clockwork Orange was enough to immediately intrigue and like the previous piece - a totally different genre of course - this again required full-on performances from each cast member to have any chance of working. Even if this never had the sheer menace you associate with the Kubrick film classic, Matthew Landers as Alex certainly made an impressive lead hoodlum, the rest of the thoroughly unsavoury group being made up of Lewis Ironside, Christopher Snelson and Adam J Carpenter. You wouldn’t like to meet any of them in a dark alley, or a well-lit one for that matter, and for the most part this proved a competent take on Burgess’s iconic work. If anything it wasn’t shocking enough.
After such in-your-face rantings, Colder Than Here (by Laura Wade) offered more toned-down drama, Karen Boniface as Jenna, and the excellently named Brandy Doubleday as Harriet. At times a little leaden, this only really engaged on a visual level when Boniface’s character actually tried out the coffin prop for size in a rather creepy moment. That aside, this was perhaps not the best choice to showcase the two graduates concerned, especially Doubleday who you felt was only in theatrical first gear.
Not so Ben Carpenter or Alasdair Shanks as Dakin and Irwin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, and in what proved a mini-jewel in the showcase’s crown. Rich in euphemisms, at first they were talking a different language, but as an unexpected sexual frisson of a kind blossoms between them, a nice blend of typical Bennett humour complete with twists and turns thoroughly won you over.
For total effort, you then had to hand it to both Louise Lee as Maria and John Paul Murray as Ned Kynaston in an adaptation from Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher. On a simplistic level it is always nice to see students taking the trouble to raid the school’s costume wardrobe and both attires certainly added to the drama. Given its period dialogue the scenario took time to warm to, but that eventually happened because of comparably fine, honest performances from both actors.
As a piece to cut your showcase comedy teeth on, Nearly Alan Ayckbourn must be about as good as it gets for graduates, and certainly Lyndsey Lennon, Polly Johnston, John Sebastian and Owen-Pullin never looked as if wasting the opportunity to make an impact in the final drama piece. It might be a common choice at graduation shows, but E15’s take proved a continually improving comic delight, Sebastian as Derek holding his own against the three almost perfect female charicatures.
After that, it was only natural that more levity should be chosen to close proceedings, and a sort of reprise of the opening musical skit, Portable Vending, was the perfect sign-off.
A consistently good showcase then, complete with a good few highlights. Even if it lacked any of those much sought after and indeed rare ‘wow’ theatrical moments though, the standard of E15’s graduating class of 2005 could only fill those present with optimism about acting’s next generation.