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Features Published 6 October 2014

In the RAW

Belinda Dillon on a new platform for recent graduates of the University of Exeter’s Drama Department.
Belinda Dillon

A Fool’s Proof

A mini-festival of performance work by recent graduates of the University of Exeter’s Drama Department, the inaugural autumn RAW Platform provides the opportunity for the department to showcase student work of which it is particularly proud, and to see how work produced for June’s RAW – aimed at graduating students who are thinking of forming companies – has subsequently developed.
 
“It’s to encourage our current students to think about what they might do for the summer platform, and to celebrate the work that’s been produced by students from the department,” says lecturer Martin Harvey, who, along with senior lecturer Kara Reilly, has organised the event. 
 
As well as inspiring newly arrived first years by showing finished work by recent graduates, RAW provides the opportunity for these companies to put their work in front of theatre professionals from across the South West with a view to getting feedback and, hopefully, an idea of whether the work can go further.
 
“Historically, Exeter Drama has been known for innovation – Forced Entertainment and Punchdrunk both came out of the department – and we hope that if we help companies work on growing themselves well, we can help to launch them into the industry,” says Kara. “It’s so difficult right now, with all the cuts to the arts, that our goal is to help service employability by bringing in as many industry professionals as we can. Over the course of the festival we’ve got representatives from the Barbican in Plymouth, the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, Bristol Old Vic and Mayfest, and we’re trying to get as many people to the event as possible to share what we think is some excellent work from innovative young theatre-makers.”
 
The Alpha Effect by High Wall Theatre Company – 2014 graduates – is a striking piece of choreographed ensemble work that explores ideas around masculinity and the body. Employing prison imagery and the repetition of ritualistic encounters, the eight-man company work through confrontations and responses, struggles and conflicts, vulnerability and yearning with a degree of physical skill and narrative ingenuity that marks them out as an interesting company to watch. 
 

The Alpha Effect

The Alpha Effect

Of all the pieces, it is the best suited to the Northcott’s large and unforgiving performance space, and uses lighting to great effect – squares of light become cells, trapping performers in individual cycles of hard-wired aggression and torment, action and reaction. The ensemble work is effective and well executed, and there are episodes of tenderness – thankfully – to counteract the testosterone swell. More stillness around the tenderness would have been welcome, as would greater physical precision and control – and, in contrast, moments of greater abandon – but High Wall Theatre show daring, plus a willingness to experiment with form and content, that is very welcome in the face of the current vogue for purely autobiographical work.

Which is where the piece by the other 2014 graduate, Simon Dean, sits. And not merely in autobiography but quite possibly in ‘theatre as therapy’, as Simon is clearly processing important issues, and using his performance practice to do it. His solo show, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother, is a performance lecture that confesses his mother’s eating disorder and scrutinizes his experience of growing up within it. Straightforward and with little embellishment, conveying an easy manner and blokey good humour, Simon delivers his truth, just an ordinary young man – visits to the pub with mates, going for a curry – who has lived through something extraordinary. 

 With casual command of the space, Simon describes how, over the Christmas holidays, he and his mother agree to unpack what has previously remained shut tight – her continuing battle with anorexia. He poses some questions – such as, what is anorexia? – and they each write down their answers. ‘Here is that document,’ he says, holding up a piece of paper, in one of the many assurances that this is not a performance, but his real experience, laid bare. It’s revealing and uncompromising, because whereas Simon describes anorexia as a ‘parasite’, a ‘drug’ that stole his mother from him, bit by bit, she talks about the ‘buzz’ of it, the ‘thrill’. How hard that must be to come to terms with: that his lows were her highs; that what hangs like a black cloud over his childhood, casting its shadow still, is something that for his mother equals pleasure, that she chose to – and might still – put it first. 
 

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother.

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother.

It if occasionally becomes a bit TED-talky, the moments of subtle theatricality deliver tenderness, and create the strongest connections: a visit from the nurse, his mother just out of hospital and still so thin she barely dents the sofa cushion, young Simon unwilling to understand the compromise over skimmed and full-fat milk; his attempts to encourage his mother to eat a custard cream. Particularly touching is his description of needing a hug from his mum, but because the source of the hug is the very person about whom he needs consolation, it becomes a circle of lack and longing.
 
Simon displays little emotion, perhaps to keep the tone light, perhaps to convey strength. A bit of interaction – we’re tasked to convince our neighbour to eat a custard cream while they, in turn, must resist – is an unnecessary contrivance: the image of a 12-year-old boy, on his knees beside his emaciated mother as he tries to convince her to eat a biscuit, holding her hand that feels already like death, is effective in itself.
 
Similarly autobiographical, and also entering ‘theatre as therapy’ territory, is Viki Browne’s solo show Help!, which describes her struggles with depression and anxiety. Taking a more directly light-hearted tone – upbeat music, glitter – it offer less insight than Simon’s piece, except perhaps the knowledge that Viki is – happily – feeling better than she was. 
 
What Viki strives for most in this piece is honesty – she takes great pains to assure us that she is a ‘real person in a true story’, and to confirm her ‘realness’ we’re given her birth certificate and a council tax bill to examine. This is real, this is true; this is a rejection of artifice, because the ‘artifice’ of putting on a brave face, pretending to be fine when inside she’s disintegrating, is what led to the sudden shattering, the system overload, that caused a breakdown. There is no metaphor here, and little theatrically bar a trip to the supermarket, just reinforcement that mental illness can affect anyone, and if you ask for help, you will get better. And in the jaunty delivery and confident, friendly manner – with constant asides, interactions and questions – Viki is demonstrating that mental distress resides not just in social awkwardness, paranoia and dishevelment, but also in the fixed smile and upbeat façade of the seemingly outgoing, and we are the ones who have to get out of our seats and hold out the hand of assistance (or, in this case, help to rebuild Viki by ensconcing her in some kind of carapace made of foil and shiny paper).
 
The performance is somewhat dwarfed by the Northcott’s vast stage, and at times Viki is inaudible, even from six rows back, but it’s testament to her charm and personality that I care enough to be happy that she’s feeling better, because occasionally the determined positivity comes across as slightly hokey. Perhaps a smaller space brings out the necessary intimacy, because Help! has proved popular at several fringe festivals and bagged Viki a Best Actress award at Reading.
 
All-female company Scratchworks Theatre’s A Fool’s Proof – which, like Help!, was first showcased at RAW 2013 – has also been developed considerably and performed widely, and is a playful and inventive piece of theatre about a nine-year-old girl trapped in a well and the cynical machinations of the journalists competing to tell the story. If the performances are a little broad at times, they fit well with the overall rhythms and cadences of the piece. Well choreographed, with references to screwball comedy tropes – the company has been mentored by Lecoq-trained Rhum & Clay, and it shows – all four performers use the space confidently and skilfully, and there are some lovely set-pieces (particularly good is a ‘battle’ with computer keyboards in the pursuit of the best story angle).
 
The production makes good use of the space and the facilities, especially the lighting, although most effective is the performers’ use of torchlight – to reveal poor little Penny’s predicament but also to illuminate characters’ individual ambitions and emotions. Entertaining, astutely written and well-crafted, it’s a strong piece that demonstrates considerable promise.
 
Both Help! and A Fool’s Proof are also evidence of the importance of students’ involvement within the city’s wider performance ecology: A Fool’s Proof began life at the Bike Shed Theatre, initially as part of the Scratch nights there, the story itself partly inspired by the subterranean intimacy of the space. Viki tested out early versions of Help! as part of the Bike Shed’s From Devon with Love festival (reviewed here), and both benefited from the feedback generated during those engagements. Both pieces were also part of Ignite this year, and have since gone on to tour elsewhere. 
 
“Little theatres that give you the support are good for emerging companies,” says Alice Higginson, one quarter of Scratchworks. “Actually, when trying to look at other venues for A Fool’s Proof, we always said we wanted to find somewhere like the Bike Shed, somewhere small, with a regular audience, nice bar and atmosphere, and have struggled to find something. We recently played the Alma Tavern in Bristol, however, which has a good, similar feel.”
 
Although encouraging students to engage with Exeter’s performance culture is part of the University’s ethos – first years especially are expected to see work regularly in the city, with the expectation of submitting critical analyses for discussion – there are hopes that a more joined-up approach is on the cards. For instance, Kaite O’Reilly, who last week brought Woman of Flowers to the Bike Shed, delivered a masterclass to a group of students, and Theatre Alibi’s Nikki Sved will soon be on campus to discuss directing. More cross-pollination can surely only benefit the health of the city’s theatre ecology.
 
“RAW is a unique opportunity for all of us to ask how can we make our community bigger,” says Kara. “We talk about spreading out, and what we can do to make the town-gown divide smaller. I’m the new Director of Education and my goal is to see the Drama Department working with all the other things happening within the city. It’s a such a vital city in terms of the arts, and we could do more to be part of that.”
 

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Belinda Dillon

Originally from London, Belinda is an editor and writer now living in Exeter. She goes to as much theatre as the day job will allow. When not sitting in the dark, or writing about sitting in the dark, she likes to drink wine, read 19th-century novels and practice taxidermy. Your cat is very beautiful. Is it old?

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