The play was not always the thing at this year's 45th National Student Drama Festival. A Sunday afternoon gap had been left in the principal performance schedule to accommodate a This Is Your Life-style farewell hooley for retiring Festival director Clive Wolfe. After three decades as Director and an association stretching back to the first NSDF in 1956, Clive has sadly been forced by illness to step down. However, an afternoon of reminiscence, sketches and video clips (including a version of "Thanks For The Memories" performed by John Godber) sent him off (not to say up) in style, with warm tributes from some of the generations whose lives he has enriched.
Towards the end of the week, too, debate grew more heated about the ethics of criticism; some Festivalgoers, most notably the authors of a couple of selected plays (one panned, one praised with only slight reservations) seemed to feel that, whether in the regular post-performance discussions or the daily Festival magazine Noises Off, anything sharper than detailed suggestions for a show's improvement constituted cruel and inhumane treatment. Whether this was due to confusing the notion of learning with that of being taught or to a kind of mass hysteria which seemed to spread through the 600-strong Festival community over a few days, this was unfortunate, as it marred what was, in terms of the standard of shows, the strongest year I can recall for some time.
The sixteen shows on display (selected from 127 entries) included only a couple of examples of new writing; half a dozen of the pieces were devised, and of the remainder, no text (other than Sheridan's A Trip To Scarborough and Carroll's The Hunting Of The Snark, both appearing in new adaptations) was more than twenty-odd years old. Indeed, one play – Moira Buffini's Silence, staged by the Welsh College of Music and Drama – has not even had its amateur rights released yet; Buffini was prevailed upon to issue limited permission to director Owen Lewis and his company. One hopes that this permission is extended, since Silence was probably the greatest hit in a week of hits, garnering Lewis the RSC's Buzz Goodbody award for directing and the entire cast a commendation from the Festival judges for acting – not so much for their ensemble work as for simple uniform excellence.
Other favourites with both the audience and the judges (critic Robert Hewison, director Mike Alfreds and actress Ingeborge Dapkunaite) included Edinburgh University's The Hunting Of The Snark (which received a commendation for ingenuity and the first Cameron Mackintosh award for use of music in theatre), Warwick University's stunning wordless piece Insomnia (an award for dance and physical theatre, and a commendation to director Dominic Leclerc), and Middlesex University's bizarre yet intensely sympathetic examination of mental illness The Lion, The Witch And A Bag Of Chips (award for a devised piece and commendations for individual performances to Audrie Woodhouse and Phil Marshall).
Further accolades recognised the range of work on show through the week, from physical storytelling adaptations of Israel Zangwill's The King Of Schnorrers (graduates of the University of Birmingham) and Neill Morton's Sunnyside (Lagan College) to a set design which seemed to turn an ordinary flat into a forest glade (Carol Smillie Trashed My Room, also from Middlesex University), and even, uniquely in my experience, a commendation for a single "transcendent moment", the opening tableau of North Kent College's Classifieds. As indicated above, new writing was thin on the ground, and neither the International Student Playscript Competition nor the Professional Managers' Association award found outright winners this year, although the Sunday Times playwriting award went to Peter Morris of Yale and Oxford for his smart black comedy Marge.
In addition to the programme of performances and discussions (augmented this year by semi-formal, themed late-night sessions), the Festival offered its usual range of workshops and masterclasses whose leaders ranged from Timothy West to Bette Bourne, Willy Russell to Ben Miller. In the absence of any sunshine in the sky throughout the week, the most dazzling beams were those visible on the face of incoming Artistic Director Nick Stimson as he realised for the first time just what a bundle of fun he has taken on...
Written for The Stage.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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