Various venues, Scarborough
7-14 April, 1999

After a couple of frankly patchy years, it is both a relief and a pleasure to report that the standard of shows at this year's National Student Drama Festival enjoyed a palpable upturn. Sixteen student productions, selected from a record 133 entries, were performed in various Scarborough venues over the week of April 7-14, together with the usual Festival programme of discussions, workshops, masterclasses and a daily magazine produced by volunteers working through each night. In fact, with weekend attendance peaking at nearly 700, it is arguable whether NSDF in its current form can practicably expand to cope with its long-overdue rise in profile.

Although, in one respect, the overall pattern of plays on show was virtually unchanged from last year (around one-third new work, with the oldest text this year being R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End), the scope and ambition of many companies seemed to have increased. The Festival hosted a clutch of large-scale productions: the aforementioned Journey's End and David Hare's The Absence Of War (both from Bristol University), Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge (Cambridge), a loud and aggressive version of Artaud's The Spurt Of Blood (Bretton Hall) and the unashamed period cheese of the Heather Brothers' A Slice Of Saturday Night (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts). In cheeky contrast, the shortest work seen during the week was Samuel Beckett's 35-second sketch Breath... but it was at least performed three times over, during an evening of Beckett shorts presented by Sheffield University and Blackpool And The Fylde College.

This ambition by and large paid off, with the Festival judges (writer and critic Robert Hewison, director Annie Castledine and actress Emma Fielding) bestowing awards or commendations on all the aforementioned "big" pieces. The most lauded was The Absence Of War; although I continue to harbour doubts about the company's ability to comprehend and convey a pre-Blair era in which politics was concerned with principles, there was no denying the production's meticulous care at both directorial level (Roland Smith) and ensemble playing, nor the commitment of Ben McCann's characterisation of fictional Labour leader George Jones. (It is telling that Jones's final, bitter "Let's all become Tories" speech now, less than a decade after the play was written, draws ironic laughter from an audience.) This production can be seen on the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Whilst Amy Rosenthal received the Sunday Times Playwriting Award for her Henna Night (Birmingham) a sensitive, acutely observed if modest two-handed chamber piece last year's most lauded playwright David Bown returned with a ragbag work, Loaded (Northampton College), whose reach noticeably exceeded its grasp; nevertheless, Bown received the new Peggy Ramsay Personal Managers' Association Bursary in acknowledgement of the "right to fail" and to enable him to hone his craft.

Perhaps the most controversial award was to the Independent Student Board at LIPA, "for generating theatrical energy". This was the second successive year in which the "Fame school" had four productions at the Festival: A Slice Of Saturday Night, A.R. Gurney Jr's The Problem, Stewart Harcourt's Somogyi's Monologue, whose lack of specific recognition by the judges surprised many, and John Godber's Teechers. Many Festival-goers believed that this indicated an imbalance in the Festival's selection criteria, or their manipulation by an institution with extensive resources to throw at its shows. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case. Rather than being official productions, all four shows selected were independent student affairs, to which the Board had given nominal sums barely into three figures then told them to go off and arrange every damn thing, including the vast majority of the finance, themselves. It is the enthusiasm and dedication which this approach has fostered not to mention giving students an early baptism of fire into the realities of trying to put a production together which the panel recognised.

As a journalist, I relish the chance of a scoop; as editor of "the bijou Festmag" Noises Off, I was overjoyed both to be able to announce a major new funding deal for the Festival and to steal a march on its major sponsor The Sunday Times in doing so. The Mackintosh Foundation (the charitable arm, so to speak, of producer Cameron Mackintosh) is to provide NSDF with £30,000 over each of the next five years, and to endow a new award for Outstanding Musical Production. Our front cover redrew the logo of local ale Cameron's Bitter to read shamelessly, "Cameron's a sweetie!" This, and the celebration of Festival patron Alan Ayckbourn's sixtieth birthday during the week, made a pleasant change from our more usual fabricated news stories and unreliable listings of events at the (fictitious) Inuit Film Festival, such as A View From The Sledge or The Absence Of Warmth. And as for The Seventh Seal...

Written for The Stage.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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