Various venues, Scarborough, N. Yorkshire
31 March 7 April, 2004

Old hands detected a number of changes in the 49th National Student Drama Festival, held between 31st March and 7th April in Scarborough, its home since 1990. Unlike his predecessor as artistic director of NSDF Nick Stimson, Andrew Loretto had no intention of keeping things exactly the same whilst also altering them entirely.

Scheduling proved a particular thorn in the Festival's side, not least because of the nature of the thirteen productions selected (from 120 entries). Rather than force shows to lose their intimacy by playing to too-large audiences, the alternative route was taken of scheduling multiple performances. This, though, meant that for the first time most productions had to face three or more performances in a single day. Such a regime took its toll particularly heavily on Queen's University of Belfast's 90-minute staging of Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project. Nevertheless, the quality of this docu-drama investigation of a homophobic beating and murder in a small Midwestern community was recognised with a judges' award for ensemble work and the Bush Theatre residency for its director Des Kennedy.

The judges critic Robert Hewison, education practitioner Patricia Kerrigan and Dartington professor David Williams gave the other prestigious directing award, along with a commendation for ensemble work, to a production of Steven Berkoff's Greek, intelligently cut and updated and vibrantly staged by Fiona Clift of Reigate Grammar School. Clift is the first school-age winner of the Buzz Goodbody award in living memory, but has already shown herself a talent to be reckoned with.

A couple of the selected pieces proved impossible to show to the entire Festivalgoing community. Leicester College's Dinner alternated its twenty performers with as many punters around a table, as the former went through a number of more or less unison routines; an excellent idea, well realised, but one wished they had found something to say with it. The "home team", the University of Hull's Scarborough School of Arts, went even further with Unlucky For Some, in which thirteen audience members at a time rotated through a baker's dozen of packing-case-sized booths, with one punter to one or two performers in each, experimenting with various kinds of response to fear: a remarkable enterprise, which netted the company a judges' commendation for innovation, and which undertook a staggering 27 performances.

Also notable was the complete absence of new writing in this year's Festival. Apart from those already mentioned, the other extant works selected were the Presnyakov Brothers' Terrorism, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing (which won LIPA the Festgoers' Award for the audience's favourite show of the week); every other piece was devised. Unsurprisingly, the Personal Managers' Association award for new writing was withheld (as was the Cameron Mackintosh award for an outstanding contribution to music theatre); indeed, the judges had to enter a grey area in order to give the Sunday Times playwriting award to one of two pieces scripted from a devising process, the delicious tragicomedy Shaking Cecelia by Tiffany Wood and Charlotte Riley of East Durham and Houghall Community College.

The preponderance of devised work also led to a huge upswing in deployment of the "it means whatever you want it to mean" cop-out in the Festival's daily discussion sessions. Thankfully, the Festival community tended to deride such a defence, not least in the energetic pages of daily magazine Noises Off and the most rigorous debating forum of all, the bar. It was noticeable that the productions which gained greatest approbation, both amongst the Festgoers in general and from the judges, were those with the clearest idea of what they had set out to achieve with their audience: the BRIT School for Performing Arts' meditation on love and death murmur [sic], Peterborough Regional College's impressionistic, apocalyptic two-hander As If A Rag, and the University of Hull's fantastical bathtime duet Tapped.

Perhaps closest to the Festival's collective heart, though, was Yoram Mosenzon, an Israeli studying at Dansacademie Arnhem, whose solo physical/movement piece Political Assassinator was shown out of competition. Not only was Mosenzon's work breathtaking, but his commitment and emotional honesty across all Festival activities were a constant inspiration to others. And at the final event of the week, a middle-aged couple of long-time Festivalgoers, Ronnie and Eileen Dyson, found themselves the centrepiece (along with Mosenzon) of an interview-based collage piece made, as part of the comprehensive workshop programme, by Recorded Delivery's Alecky Blythe. Fame at last!

Written for The Stage.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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