Various venues, Scarborough
5-12 April, 1990

During the last week, clutches of young people have been pounding the streets of Scarborough at all hours of the day and night clutching Xeroxed fanzines in garish colours. Their eyes flash with the zeal of the acolyte, their laughter is edged with hysteria. It may look like an intensive conversion course for one of the more dubious religious cults. In fact, it is the 35th National Student Drama Festival. The esoteric publication in their hands is the Festival's daily paper, Noises Off, the hysteria is a result of having spent their mornings at workshops, their afternoons at masterclasses, their evenings at productions of plays, and their nights (the most dedicated and foolhardy amongst us anyway) at all-night sessions writing and assembling the newspaper. The performance of plays at the Festival is competitive, but no-one is here to win awards; rather to partake of the massive bazaar of techniques and sideshows. But this year, particularly, there seem to be a number of issues on display – traditional in many respects, but given a contemporary urgenccy.

Economic strain is beginning to take its toll on the carnival. The plays have become less generous of spirit, or too eager to react against the pessimism by pretending no more than simple "entertainment". The showfolk's caravans are full of talk of the future of the community as a whole. A troupe from Czechoslovakia – DAMU, the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague – is particularly in demand; as members of this dramatic community, increasingly alienated from the political mainstream, seek to trade secrets with a culture now led by one of the showfolk. Practical considerations, however, take priority over ideological principles. A discussion on funding theatre, consisting of representatives of commercial theatre and arts sponsorship schemes, was particularly timely: on Tuesday, festival-selector Iain Ormsby-Knox heard that Staffordshire County Council has cut the grant for his planned Northern School of Drama from £50,000 to £6,000.

This shift in cultural priorities has had the effect of making the ever-popular pieces with a narrative built upon altruistic premises sound disturbingly elegiac. Tim Fountain's Morning Has Broken, performed by a group from Hull, chronicles a year of the exchanges between a youth on community service and the old woman assigned to his care. It is a touching and poetic play, but one which offers nothing beyond the bald account of the woman's final decline. Meanwhile, the Head First Theatre Company from Middlesex Polytechnic performed an astonishing play without words set in Northern Ireland. The company was surprised and a little affronted to learn that the audience felt the Troubles could not be confined to such a peripheral role. Both they and Fountain's Hull company have created passages of joy and beauty on the stage, but neither leaves a lasting impression.

There seemed to he a lack of middle ground between new plays and established classics. None of the already extant plays on show were of less than monolithic cultural stature. The non-originals were Hamlet, Molière's The Hypochondriac, Wedekind's Spring Awakening, Look Back In Anger and a version of Agamemnon by Steven Berkoff. Conspicuously least successful, Look Back In Anger was mismatched with its venue; any hope Guernsey Youth Theatre might have had of resuscitating the script floundered in a cavernous theatre to which their production was woefully unsuited. Leicester Polytechnic's Silver Arcade company, in contrast, took The Hypochondriac and shook it warmly by the throat. Theirs was a surreal variant of physical theatre in which the bodies of the company became part of the set and props (the billiard table composed of four actors with their mouths agape was particularly striking).

The Marcel Duchamp Memorial Shanks Armitage for Surrealism sits firmly in the grasp of the Czechs. I Don't Know Where I'm Going revolves around the repeated packing and unpacking of an entire family apartment at top speed whenever the relocation hooter sounds. The DAMU company displays extraordinary energy, and their use of partial translation into English of tactically selected phrases and passages guaranteed them the audience's indulgence. Onstage and off, they have contributed enormously to the Festival's spirit.

Equal emotional impact, however, has been supplied by the Thomas Sumpter School, Scunthorpe. Following the rapturous reception of their The Moon's The Madonna at last year's Festival, Richard Cameron and his pupils have fashioned a story of three women's desperation in the face of one man's casual brutality. Can't Stand Up For Falling Down is starkly presented and chillingly performed by a cast of l6- and 17-year-olds. The National Student Theatre Company would be well advised to adopt the show for this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

Oddly for a Festival centred upon the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, there has yet to he a confirmed sighting of its artistic director, Alan Ayckbourn. He was scheduled to give two masterclasses (his first in Britain), but so far his legendary shyness appears to have kept him well away from the maelstrom of adolescents. Other workshops are led or are to be led by Bernard Hill, Timothy West, Ben Ormerod and Robert Hewison of the Sunday Times. Inevitably, the bar is the focus for most intense and animated exchanges of ideas. When the bar shuts, discussions continue in the theatre's rehearsal room, converted for the week into the Noises Off office. The paper's operation, like much of the Festival, is to logistics what the bumble bee is to aerodynamics; and yet it survives – like the Festival, a useful showcase for student drama.

Written for The Independent.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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