At the opening of Hannah Maxwell’s I, AmDram, audience members are presented with a chaotically printed program/songsheet for the show. I particularly enjoyed the care taken to include four different fonts on the title page, and the middle pages printed upside down, in true AmDram style.
Small-town Amateur Dramatics is one of those beautiful, flawed institutions with its own set of laws, constant eccentricities, and never-ending drama. Maxwell describes it as ‘hearts big, racism casual’- and she knows this world better than anyone. Her family have been leaders in the AmDram scene in Welwyn Garden City going back generations. She informs us ‘I am the first female member of my family to miss a production for a reason other than childbirth’
At the opening of the show, Maxwell takes on the role of the charismatic music hall, compere, welcoming everyone and leading an audience chorus of ‘Pack up your troubles’.
‘Remember! It’s-a-pack! Not Pack-it’s-a!’ she chirps, with the confidence of a 60-year old lord mayor who’s told the same joke for 20 years with uproarious laughter every time. In my old Amateur Dramatics society, the standing joke was to point out the fire exits then say ‘in the event of a fire, oxygen masks will not fall from the ceiling, and there are no life jackets under your seats’. People loved it.
(I was almost in tears on the way to the show. I was convinced I was going to be late, having already missed the show once, and I kept going the wrong way and the fringe is just really HARD sometimes, so every moment of this show felt like relief.)
When Maxwell puts two chairs together and sits on one facing out, and says solemnly ‘How else would I expect you to believe that I was on a train’ I almost lose my goddamn mind laughing. Her humour is eccentric and eclectic, informed by years of tradition, befuddlement and whole-hearted amateurism. She delivers a poetic ode to the long awkward blackout, complete with a singular chair being moved onto stage, argued over, then dragged awkwardly into various different, entirely wrong, positions.
The show covers years of Hannah’s involvement with the society, including her teenage years and the process of coming out as gay. The best moment of this entire show is the Gilbert and Sullivan ‘Modern Major General’ with the lyrics changed in an ode to the ‘Learned Urban Lesbian’. I need the lyrics to this immediately, so I can learn them and teach them to everyone I know.
Hannah moves away, and builds a career in Live Art. She notes that it feels weird going back to your home town. She plays out her family’s voices, discussions and arguments using different riffs on the piano, in a super-tight piece of dramaturgy which I’m transfixed by.
It’s at this point, however, that I think I want a bit more from the show. Maybe it’s because the small town-big city and low-high art conundrum is something I think about a lot. I want to hear more about Hannah’s life in London and her career as a live artist. What is it like to be radical and socially conscious with every piece of art you make, then adjust to stage managing a vaguely offensive and dated musical? Does it mean that your new life is better? That your family and childhood friends are wrong? Do we cling on to the traditions of almost a century or should we sack it off altogether?
I guess AmDram deals with things which are easy. The villains, the dances, the rightful comeuppance for the bad and good guys. Live art and contemporary performance often poses an open-ended question, or invites you to figure something out. It’s that challenge which I think I’m missing in this piece. I’m craving something messy and complicated under the fun. Still, I, AmDram is a hilarious ode to the institution of AmDram, to passion and to families, both biological and forged in fire and folk art.
I, AmDram was on at Pleasance at 2pm until 26th August. It plays London’s Camden People’s Theatre from Tuesday 26th-Saturday 30th November – more info and tickets here.