Praise for depth and richness of drama on show in 59th county festival
Wednesday 4th March
Sitting in the Garrison Theatre watching the opening night of the 59th Shetland County Drama Festival, it was interesting to speculate on how the festival might have changed over the years. Theatrical styles might change, content might at times reflect the world of today and technology moves on; however the basics of theatre remain the same – the skills of performers and production teams are harnessed to entertain an audience; and the emphasis was firmly placed upon entertainment on the Wednesday night.
Of the four shows, two were light-hearted approaches to story-telling; one was a sharp satire and only one dealt with more tragic events. Perhaps the biggest change in the festival has been the way it has been adopted as a platform to showcase the enthusiasm and abilities of children for of the above shows two were non-competitive presentations by primary schools, one was entered in the Junior Section and only one was presented by an “adult” group.
First on stage were 12 children from Bressay Primary presenting The Good Ship Diana. Using the memorial on Victoria Pier as a starting point the children had researched the ill-fated voyage of the whaling boat Diana and under the guidance of Izzy Swanson had improvised a presentation illustrating their discoveries.
This was an excellent example of the value of using drama as a stimulus to develop project work.
It also demonstrated the way that drama demands a sense of teamwork, shared purpose, confident expression and self discipline. Each of the children had adopted a different character on the ship and took it in turns to tell elements of the story from their own imagined perspective. This was done in a clear and confident manner and great care was taken to ensure that all the participants made an equal contribution to the story telling. This story telling was enhanced and animated by the use of carefully rehearsed and executed mime.
With so many of the “basics” of theatre technique explored and embraced by the group, it would be fascinating to see them explore these further by working on material that pushed theatricality further and explored the way characterisation can be used to express deeper emotion and interaction between individuals. When drama can so successfully support educational objectives it begs for those objectives to be used to support the development of theatrical awareness and presentation. The Good Ship Diana was an excellent piece of animated presentation. It suggested that the group have both the skills and the support to develop further.
In many ways, this last point was illustrated by the next presentation. Tingwall Primary (again under the guidance of Izzy Swanson) presented a version of The Fisherman’s Wife adapted from the story by the Brothers Grimm. The 13 pupils used many of the techniques already seen in the previous presentation (adding choral speaking to the list) but pushed the theatrics one stage further. As well as a chorus, there was more individual characterisation from the fisherman, his wife, and especially from a most entertaining fish.
As with all good stories for children, the plot was simple. A fish granted a fisherman a series of wishes. His wife took advantage of this opportunity and made increasingly greedy demands (the finest clothes, wealth beyond imagination, a palatial house and finally to be queen of the world). Each of these was granted until finally the fish could stand no more and made her “queen of her world as it was before” and life was returned to normal. What made this production special was the total engagement of the children in the material.
The chorus not only held up clothes, money and houses in order to illustrate the story but embraced the theatrical power of the chorus as a character. Their movements and voices became more and more frenetic as the demands became increasingly outrageous and the result was that the story was not just presented, it was performed with a mixture of skill, enthusiasm and enjoyment. This was simple theatrical story telling at its best. It was tremendous fun for everyone involved, both on stage and in the audience.
The first competitive entry was Trowies Trysht, written by Mike Newbold and presented by Splinters Youth Theatre in the Junior Section. This was, quite literally, a fairy story. All the trows really wanted was the opportunity to find a home and settle down. However, as a result of their reputation (and the machinations of one bad apple fairy), the fairies were suffering from a bad case of “not in my back garden”.
Like the previous show, this was a simple morality tale. With Tingwall the moral was “greed never gets you anywhere”, here it was “friendship is stronger than division”. Not that the trows helped their cause by kidnapping a fairy and making use of their ugliness in an attempt to ward off the fairies – “getting what you deserve” being another theme introduced.
When the trows were caught in a large trap by the fairies who had jumped to all the wrong conclusions, they almost had to suffer for their reputation preceding them but innate goodness won the day and a shared celebration of mutual friendship concluded the piece.
Written in dialect and performed by a large company of young actors, the production, directed by Di Newbold, had all the hallmarks of Splinters Junior shows. A simple story with a happy ending provided a platform for carefully constructed stage pictures, boundless enthusiasm, teamwork and energetic delivery. The show would have benefited from additional work on creating more variation among the characters, especially in the fairies. This is difficult when the characters are intrinsically good. There are only so many shades of goodness, but this piece would have much richer if the group of fairies could have been more clearly seen to reflect a wider sense of individuality.
However, this was a most appealing and entertaining show. It had some genuinely funny moments (teaching trowie scary faces were particularly well done) and some lovely performances. The trows were excellent with a particularly fine performance from Caitlin Bussetil as the baby trow.
Although in the past this reviewer has questioned the need for songs in Splinters Junior shows, in this case the song was entirely justified. The show demanded a song as part of the final celebration but perhaps more attention could have been paid to the scansion and rhyme scheme of the lyrics, and a bit more beef to the musical sound.
Trowie Tryst added another layer to an evening that was exhibiting the depth of ability children have to entertain a wide ranging audience.
The final show of the evening was presented by Serpentine in the Open Section. In the past this company has developed a reputation for presenting extremely thought provoking pieces of work. It was refreshing to see the company try their hand at comedy. Signifying Nothing, written by Peter Ratter, was a pastiche of the very festival in which it was being performed. A spectacularly awful theatre company were undergoing the technical rehearsal for their abridged (nay, murdered) production of Macbeth. At its best, this was a sharp, pointed, slightly cruel but very funny satire of the drama festival. Even when the humour was pointed at specific events/individuals from previous years, it was generic enough to appeal to anyone with an awareness of amateur theatre. Less successful was the gay stereotyping of the theatre director. Alan Gordon was enthusiastic as the director and although this role generated many witty one liners, many of these jokes belonged to a bygone age of faded sitcoms and blunted the sharp satire of the rest of the script.
It is often said that comedy is harder to perform than tragedy because it demands a higher level of technique from both actors and director. To perform a show that features bad acting is doubly difficult. It takes a total command of the craft of acting to successfully portray a bad actor. This production did not quite do justice to the script. There were moments of pure brilliance. The “in the light/out of the light” sequence was a gem, as was the delivery of lines to the adjudicator rather than the audience.
There was also some wonderful ongoing business featuring a world weary stage manager (a lovely, non speaking performance by Kelly Nicol) whose world was collapsing round her thanks to the actions of the “arty lot”. Too often however, the pace was slow, lines under delivered and the action lacking in precision. When some of the best articulation is delivered by an actress who has just lost her teeth in the cauldron (a glorious sequence from Ann Thomson) there is a lesson to be learnt.
The show also featured a dance sequence that was too seriously good (rather than skilfully executed awfulness) to really make a comic impact and it detracted somewhat from the disco routine that should have been the culmination of a glorious butchering of theatre. Signifying Nothing should have been painfully funny. It was often entertaining but the production did not reach the heights within its reach.
With some rewriting this is a dynamic script that could live for as long as there are drama festivals. Perhaps if it is to be repeated there could be more focused work in the rehearsal room on both physical and vocal delivery. After all the energy and enthusiasm that had been demonstrated earlier in the evening, the times when these qualities sagged in this production were particularly noticeable.
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Thursday 5th March
Opening Thursday evening was Dunrossness Primary school with a non-competitive play A Taste of Burns produced by Izzy Swanson. Once again this year, the non-competitive productions were omitted from the programme. Competitive or not, they still deserved their name to be in the programme.
It was nice to start the evening with the Scots dialect. There were 17 children involved with this production and they all did very well. Speaking Scots can be very difficult so the children should be very proud of their efforts.
The children acted out three of Burns’s famous poems, Tam O’ Shanter, To a Mouse and The Twa Dugs.
The stage set was simple and effective with Robbie Burns sitting writing at his desk with an eye-catching quill.
If the desk had been further forward, this would have encouraged the children to speak forward rather than back and it would have given their voices more volume as the dialogue was very hard to catch at times. Having Robbie Burns at his desk as the prompt was a very clever and effective idea.
The animal antics were good, however if you are drinking out of a cup or mug on stage always have liquid in your cup. Congratulations Dunrossness and we hope to see you in the junior section next year.
Second play of the evening was The Island of the Three Mad Monkeys from Aith Junior High School produced by Marsali Taylor and Marie Tait in the Junior Section.
Six children had been shipwrecked on a strange island. The monkeys got the children to help others on the island before they were allowed to leave. This was a drama project by primary five and six pupils and involved 21 children on stage. The set was nice and bright and the boat was good. The costumes were bright and effective.
A great idea was the children using their hands on the stage for the sound of rain and thunder. Unfortunately, the children had not been supported to develop their characters enough or to project their voices. There was a lack of energy and enthusiasm on stage and the children were not directed to react to what was happening on stage; they did not look at each other during conversations, there was no surprise at a monkey appearing and there was no change in voices or body language during a storm. That having been said, the first monkey was very good and was always acting. It was very off putting having an adult’s voice from the wings appearing over the children’s when they were chanting together. The children were capable of being loud and clear at this point, without that support.
It is great to see so many children on stage and interested in drama. Keep up the interest and hard work!
The pace of the evening quickened up with the third play from Splinters Youth Theatre, a comedy written by Mike Newbold called You Just Can’t Trust Them. The play is set in the 1970s at a girl’s school campsite but there are funny goings on.
This was a great production with a wide range of characters. The set was simple and very effective with two tents, a clothes line, a camping table and chairs. The costumes were colourful and right for the 1970s and the boys’ costumes were excellent. The boys brought a much needed wave of laughter and energy to the stage and the energy and comedy was maintained at that level throughout. The cast seemed to be really having great fun.
Congratulations to this cast as every word was spoken loudly and clearly and facial expressions were great. Mary, played by Lizzie Ward-Smith, was brilliant; the mud bath scene was good as were her facial expressions throughout. Amy, played by Sarah Webb, was always busy on stage, folding clothes, peeling tatties, always finding something to do. Ian or Iris, played by Barry Cranie, well, what can I say? He was the star of the show.
His timing was excellent, his facial expressions were brilliant and he was a joy to watch on stage. Congratulations to Splinters Youth for a very entertaining production.
The final play of the evening was performed by one of the longest established drama groups in Shetland, Ronas Drama Group. A Tale o’ Twa Undertakers, written by Alan Richardson, was produced by Fiona Aitken in the open section.
This is a Scots comedy set in Tam Borthwick’s funeral parlour around 1896. Two brothers run rival funeral parlours in the same street – a partnership would seem sensible but the men prefer to squabble. The costumes were excellent and in period. The stage set was good, with a table and chairs, two slabs and a coffin. The coffin would have been better down stage and not at the back as it could not be easily seen.
The timing and pace of the play was good, as were the props. A lot of thought went into the props which makes a significant difference to a production. The letters were dusty and the door was strong.
The characters’ facial expressions were excellent and they waited for their laugh lines. Everyone was well cast. Tam, played by Ewen Balfour, suited the part of the “not-so-well-to-do” funeral director and played it very well. Herbert Purves, a sheriff court official, was beautifully played by Willie Robertson. His timing was wonderful and his character was perfect. I enjoyed this play very much. Well done Ronas.
This was a very enjoyable evening, with four very different plays. Well done to all involved.
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Friday 6th March
Friday evening got off to a flying start with Never Trust a Robot by the Bonnie Islanders. This delightful comedy told us the story of how Minger, a scheming shop owner, was on the lookout for an easy way to make a million or even a trillion pounds. He then lands himself in trouble when trying to steal robots from a local inventor. There followed wonderful moments of comedy as we met the robots invented to do the housework for the inventor’s lazy family. The robots then turned out to be as lazy as the family and accused the humans of having inferior intelligence. During all of that Minger and his assistants were planning a great robbery – which of course went terribly wrong.
The set, although simple, clearly depicted the family home of the inventor and Minger’s trading area. The director may have reduced the amount of movement required if more lighting had been used to help set scenes and establish time changes. It was also frustrating to not be able to see all of the performers as they had been blocked by the director to either face side on or upstage.
There were some beautiful individual performances during this play, most notably by young Curtis Williamson who played Minger, but I feel all of the actors from the Bonnie Islanders each gave a performance of great gusto and should be very proud of their achievement.
We then moved on to Scalloway Junior High School’s production called Mouats Musicals Present … The first thing to mention is how brave they were to take to the stage given that four of their cast members were unwell and were replaced at the last minute by existing cast and teachers. A brave decision as this can be incredibly unsettling for all involved.
Unfortunately, these changes did have an effect on the overall performance and at times you had the impression that there was a great deal of panic backstage. That aside, the idea behind this play was very funny and was almost Shrek-like in its humour with a script littered with glorious one liners. I’m afraid I lost the story though and there were occasions when I was uncertain whether the play was a pantomime or a comedy.
Particular mention must be made of Irie Harvey who performed Dopey beautifully, and Rhanna Dawson’s scooter when she appeared as Fairy Godmother was legendary. All members of this cast though gave very strong performances and they all sustained their wonderful characterisations throughout.
A so called traditional Victorian melodrama followed by The Westside Players called Temptation Sordid or Virtue Rewarded which had the audience in stitches from the very beginning.
Bob Hudson, who is the master of finding his light, was the Chairman and throughout the play guided us neatly and professionally from scene to scene. This was certainly required as there was a lot going on.
Arabella’s true love Clarence is challenged by Sir Jasper Breakneck to go off and make his fortune to win Arabella’s hand. The evil Sir Jasper travels with Clarence to America to attempt to thwart Clarence in his task so he can go back and claim Arabella’s hand. In America, Clarence meets Fanny who helps (with her own agenda) in finding his gold and assists Clarence in taking his wealth back to his true love. Several twists and turns in the plot later and the evil Sir Jasper and Fanny end up shooting each other and true love prevails.
This was a hugely entertaining performance by this company and the wonderful use of the borderline ridiculous props cannot go unmentioned. This was glorious nonsense which is actually very difficult to deliver with such aplomb and this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed their tongue in cheek production.
The final play of the evening was performed by Serpentine Drama. Real or Invented by Genevieve White told the story of what happens to Charis, a playwright who struggles when her characters start interfering with the play she is trying to write.
This play had a deceptively simple set which helped this complicated story be visually explained more clearly. At the heart of this play was a script which had a stunning idea behind it. The truth of the pain of writing, ultimately a solitary process, and the way in which writers often get attached to their characters made for a fascinating story. For me however, the structure of this play was in places too confusing and there were many moments when characters peaked too early. I also felt that it was unclear whether the play was a straight drama or a comedy and the end result was caught between the two.
There were four very strong performances from the cast and at times this play had me completely gripped but I was disappointed not to fully engage with all of the characters, in particular Charis whose story felt incomplete and not fully explained.
This was however an exciting piece of contemporary theatre to watch and it was refreshing to see such an interesting idea explored and performed so well.
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Saturday 7th March
The final night of the Drama Festival featured three productions, one in the Youth Section, one in the Adult Section and a non-competitive presentation by Scalloway Primary School.
It is tempting to say that the three shows all adopted a different approach to story telling, but in the case of Year of the Strangers presented by Aith JHS the notion of story was less important than a series of snapshots that combined to create a collage of the cultural meeting between a Polish immigrant family and indigenous Shetland schoolchildren.
Directed by Marsali Taylor, this production was another example of the use of drama as an educational tool. The company had interviewed Polish children at Bell’s Brae and Anderson High and created a production that followed one particular fictional family trough the course of a year, from Christmas to Christmas.
Even apart from its obvious educational emphasis, there was much to admire about this production. The use of Christmas as a way of revealing separate traditions and of joining cultures together was beautifully thought out. The idea of spreading the show over a 12 month period as a way to examine developing relationships was clever, as was the use of school projects to explore different traditions. However, the subject matter was so big that a one act play could merely scratch the surface of what could have been at least three separate shows. Thus what was lost was the idea of a detailed story. This was more dramatised documentary than pure drama and too often was unable to explore any of the issues raised in any great depth.
There were some lovely performances on show. The boys (Liam Anderson, James Cree-Hay and Davis Williamson) were particularly appealing (although they did have the best lines), and while the cast as a whole would benefit from a stronger vocal technique (both articulation and pace of delivery) every actor contributed to the overall presentation.
With so many short scenes, the production was almost televisual in presentation. It is to the credit of the company that the many scene changes were as fluid as they were and although these were the cause of a certain dragging down of pace, this could have been a far greater problem.
If the basis of all good theatre is conflict, this production could perhaps be the springboard for a new piece (or pieces) of work. The dilemma of the trained teacher working as a cleaner is an aspect to be explored further, as is the resentment of the friend who feels she has been passed over in favour of the new pupil; most especially, the whole area of resentment shown towards immigrants. This was a relentlessly optimistic production. If only it were so simple. Theatre can attempt to change our world but only if it embraces and portrays the problems it encounters. If everything in the garden is rosy there is little dramatic tension and, no matter how well it is presented, not much of a story to tell.
There was no shortage of story in Da Company, written by Mike Newbold and presented by Splinters Youth Theatre in the Shetland Section. This was an attempt to condense the story of Busta House into a one act play. The story of Barbara Pitcairn, her marriage to John O’Busta, his subsequent drowning before the marriage was announced and the destruction of Barbara by Lady Busta is the very stuff of Victorian melodrama.
It is a story so Gothic that if it were not true it would be hard to give it credence. It was therefore right that the script told the story in the form of a play within a play. Not only did this allow for a narrator to progress the story from within a theatrical context, but it allowed the production to be set in an age when melodrama was fashionable. As with the previous production this material is so rich that there is room for another (full length) play exploring this story (and especially the character of Lady Busta) but this was an excellent introduction to the story in a one act format.
Directed by Di Newbold, Da Company featured strong performances from all of the seven actors. Kirsty Thomason as Barbara Pitcairn was particularly strong, delivering a performance that embraced the whole emotional range of a woman who experienced the absolute heights of joy and the deepest trough of despair.
She was ably supported by Keith Williamson as John O’ Busta although he was at his strongest as the narrator/company manager. The emotional rock of the production was provided by Carlyn Johnson in a heartfelt performance as Barbara’s sister Ellice and the stiff backed, emotionally scarred Lady Busta was well portrayed by Pamela Main (with some fine doubling up as the lecherous minister John Fisken). The character of Anna the maid was under-explored in the text as was that of the son Gideon, although both actors gave strong performances.
The production sagged slightly in the middle, although what made this noticeable was the overall strength of the performance and the dance sequence could do with a different staging. However the choral singing was extremely effective and the scene in the boat that could have been a theatrical nightmare was handled with style and confidence. This was a bold and confident example of theatrical storytelling.
The final production on offer was The Ogre who had no Heart performed by 33 pupils from Scalloway Primary School. This was an ensemble telling of an old northern European tale and was extremely bright, colourful and entertaining. Like several other productions during the festival, the production adopted animated storytelling as its approach, with the large company using choral narration to deliver the tale of the young prince defeating the cruel ogre by finding the monster’s heart and squeezing the life out of it.
The one word that best describes this production is “delightful”. When a company enjoys itself so much in the telling of a story, that enjoyment is infectious and within seconds the audience are captivated by the production. There were some examples of dropped cues and some dodgy timing of the choral speaking but none of this could take away from the spirit of the piece and when there were moments of true individualism among the ensemble presentation (the ogre at his most languid) the production really developed a style of its own.
In a week that, on at least two nights, celebrated different approaches to storytelling and made much of the enthusiasm of children, this was a fitting, joyous end to the festival. It is to be hoped that all this youthful enjoyment of theatre is sustained over the years and that after 59 years of the drama festival the future of Shetland drama is as strong as ever.
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Drama Festival Winners 2009
Junior Section – John Harald Johnson Cup: Splinters Youth Theatre, Trowies Trysht
Junior Cup – Fraser Cluness Cup: Curtis Williamson (Bonnie Islanders – Never Trust a Robot)
Shetland Junior Shield – Jenny Gilbertson Memorial: Catherine Johnson (Splinters Youth Theatre, Trowies Trysht)
Youth Section – Anne Gray Trophy: Splinters Youth Theatre, You Just Can’t Trust Them
Youth Shield – Williamson Shield: Lizzie Ward-Smith (Splinters Youth Theatre, You Just Can’t Trust Them)
Shetland Youth Trophy – J Robertson Memorial: Keith Williamson (Splinters Youth Theatre, Da Company)
Shetland Section – Bobby Hutchison Cup: Splinters Youth Theatre, Da Company
Shetland Shield – Magnus Goudie Memorial: Kirsty Thomason (Splinters Youth Theatre, Da Company)
Best Original Shetland Play – George Keith Trophy: Mike Newbold (Splinters Youth Theatre, Trowies Trysht)
Best Original Play (non dialect) – Dorothy Jamieson Memorial: Genevieve White (Serpentine, Real or Invented)
Open Section – Geirra Burgess Trophy: Sepentine, Real or Invented
Adult Shield – Harry Douglas Shield: Izzy Swanson (Serpentine, Real or Invented)
First Time Producer – Neil Anderson Trophy: Robert Lowes (Serpentine, Real or Invented)
Best Stage Presentation – Irvine Cup: Splinters Youth Theatre, Da Company
Most Meritorious – Erling Vidlin Cup: Aith JHS, Year of the Strangers
Best Entertainment – Marion Tait Trophy: Westside Players, Temptation Sordid or Virtue Rewarded
Overall Points Winner – Minnie Wright Trophy: Splinters Youth Theatre, Da Company