A one-man physical theatre portrayal of the Aberfan disaster of 1966 – a cheery, uplifting way to begin this year's National Student Drama Festival. Day One was, in effect, Welsh day, as Mark Jermin's Aberfan was followed by a hesitant Under Milk Wood from Gorseinon College. (The Welsh motif didn't extend to scheduling Calderdale Colleges' Trainspotting for the same day, although in subsequent discussion the company themselves seemed unsure of the extent to which the play should be regarded as Irvine Welsh's work.)
The Festival set-up is familiar to those of us with previous campaign medals: what with workshops during the day, lunchtime discussions, afternoon and evening performances, a late bar and a daily Festival magazine (which I have edited since 1991) being put together through the night by volunteers, it is in theory possible to spend the entire eight days without sleep, although in practice we die-hards tend to opt for 20-hour days.
This year saw less of an emphasis on new work, with a handful of new pieces nestling next to versions of Pinter's The Dwarfs (featuring an extraordinary soundscape by Bob Fitzgerald of the Welsh College of Music and Drama), David Edgar's Ball Boys (newly revised for a Birmingham University company by the author, who seemed unknown to one or two Festgoers that thought it was an original work), and even the logistical nightmare of transferring a full-scale production of Guys And Dolls from Exeter's Northcott Theatre to the custom-converted "Dolphinarium" space at Scarborough College. That said, Festival judge Robert Hewison noted that no play on show predated 1952.
In many ways, this generation of students seemed to be discovering theatre all over again, sometimes in more fruitful ways than others. The week included a brief Sam Shepardesque sketch (Dog Eat Dog, from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts), the Marxist polemic of Ball Boys, Anglo-Malaysian storytelling and a narrative-free concert musical (The Storyteller and Closer Than Ever respectively, both also from LIPA), weighty ritual (Terminal, reworked with a University of Huddersfield company by Joseph Chaikin) and arts-labby indulgence (A-Gender from Manchester's Arden Theatre School) as well as more straightforward offerings. The latter sometimes betrayed the excessive influence of television both on writing and performance styles (with Kevin Rundle's Sincerity from Warwick University almost as much of a show-reel as it was a play), and yet anything out of the mainstream continued to be seen as novel: the travails of Guys And Dolls' transfer, despite Herculean commitment from the entire company, were readily apparent, yet the less ambitious and less coherent Closer Than Ever was hosanna'd far beyond the undoubted merits of its magnificent cast.
You just can't please all of the people all of the time. Because NSDF is based upon selection, and shows invited to Scarborough from the (usually) hundred-odd adjudicated upon each year are already deemed to be pretty damn hot, it often comes as a surprise to companies to find that they still encounter criticism. If you've got a beautifully naturalistic kitchen set in which you're supposed to be cooking for a dinner party, why is there no cooker (Sincerity)? Is that a metaphorical tennis court or deliberately tacky design (Ball Boys)? How sensible is it not to have read the novel in whose stage adaptation you're starring (Russell Varley of Trainspotting)? Why, when a show had a good reception in discussion, did only hatchet jobs appear in the "bijou Festmag"? (Yep, I was in the firing line too.) It seemed to take longer than usual for folk to acclimatise to the character of the Festival, but we got there in the end. We always do. Alcohol is a great leveller.
As well as the usual fixtures (pyrotechnics workshops in the Spa Centre's Grand Hall; Ivor Benjamin's "Sixty Ways To Die Horribly Onstage" workshop; Robert Hewison's ongoing inner struggle to avoid the word "meretricious"), a few million volts were put up our collective arses by the arrival of Ken Campbell for a workshop, interview (he got through four questions in an hour) and to introduce a guest production which had taken shape under his aegis, LAMDA's Pidgin Makbed – a translation of Macbeth in which Lady M's "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" is rendered as "Seten, tekem mi hambag" and Macduff's "O horror, horror, horror!" becomes "Bagarap, bagarap, bagarap!" (Try saying it aloud.)
Festival judge Cathy Tyson had to depart early, leaving Hewison and John Godber to slug it out for the distribution of awards. As well as plays already mentioned, these included a commendation for devised work to Cambridge ADC's City Haunts, and awards for acting and an "outstanding production" to David Bown's Stand from Northampton College. But some of us, shamefully, are more concerned about regaining the pub quiz trophy next year...
Written for The Stage.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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