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July 9 2021, County Drama Festival News

Philip de Glanville

All-England Theatre Festival News by Philip de Glanville

The pandemic smoulders on, and just recently has been flaring up again, but those of us lucky enough to have been double vaccinated seem to be getting a bit braver and are venturing out to the theatre once more.

Things are certainly humming at the Merlin Theatre in Frome, which is my ‘local’ and I’ve seen some extraordinarily good amateur theatre in the last couple of weeks, starting with a superb production of Nick Payne’s Constellations, set extremely simply on a perfect rectangle of white carpet side-lit in the middle of a dense black stage, and performed with consummate skill by two exceptional actors, directed by newcomer Andy Cork (new to Frome, that is, but certainly not to the art of directing!). And last night I went to see God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, a four-hander set on a traverse stage in the middle of a large room, with the audience on both sides. A superb piece of theatre with which to open Frome Festival, directed with great skill and imagination by Richard Thomas.

In both instances everyone arrived in masks, dutifully sanitising their hands, and the front of house teams allocated seating to everyone in their bubbles, carefully distanced from the next. It took a bit more time than it would normally have done, but it felt very well-organised and, above all, safe. And golly, the audiences are lapping it up – great turnouts, and such a good buzz of appreciation afterwards!

I mention the Merlin Theatre, because the next amateur theatre scheduled there – on Saturday week actually (17th July) is the Western Area semi-final of the All-England Theatre Festival. Yes, the competition has survived Covid-19 and, hopefully, will have produced four winning plays from all over the South West, battling it out for a place in the English Final at Bridlington Spa in August.

Here in Somerset we did try very hard to run our County Drama Festival, moving the date back several times in order to comply with the ever-changing restrictions. We started originally with seven teams, but several fell by the wayside, sadly, and in the end only two were left standing for the final date we came up with, at the beginning of July. They were IES and Bleadon Players. So, instead of getting them to travel to a central venue, we went to them, to try and come up with a winner to represent us at the Merlin in mid-July. By we, I mean Ron Roberts, who is Chairman of the Western Area committee, and myself. And we thoroughly enjoyed the experience!

IES’s entry was a rather strange but intriguing play, called Tone Clusters, written nearly 30 years ago by Joyce Carol Oates, and directed by Valda Dagnell. It was based on a true story and concerned the horrifically violent murder of a young girl in a small New York suburb. The alleged perpetrator, a boy in his early 20s, was awaiting trial for the crime, and the play was set in a TV studio where an interview with his parents was being recorded. The Gulicks were beautifully played by Mick and Irene Glynn, with terrific attention to detail. They were the only actors visible to us, the voice of the interviewer being provided off-stage by Neil Morgan. This all sounds pretty straightforward, but it seemed to me that the author was using the story as a way of examining the intrusive effect of the media on the lives of very ordinary members of the public, and this poor couple were increasingly unsettled, bewildered and finally completely undermined by the tangential nature of the questions put to them, and the dissonance that this created as the virtual certainty of their son’s guilt emerged, despite their deeply-rooted confidence in his innocence. An important element of this production were the extraordinary range and variety of the images projected on the screen behind them on the Warehouse stage, thanks to sterling work by Charlie Carrington and the rest of the IES production team.

In compete contrast the following night we went to Bleadon, just south of Weston-super-Mare, to see their delightful light comedy Balloons in the Bar by Louise Wade. This was written as a four-hander, though debutante-director Tina Sherwood squeezed a sneaky couple of extras in too, simply, it seemed, to celebrate the joy of have live theatre again on their tiny stage! The plot revolves around reluctant bride-to-be Jessica (Scarlett Fear), who escapes the tacky Hen Party arranged for her by BFF Christine (played as uproariously and disgracefully drunk by Sharon Richards) and meets Rob (Peter Gibbon), a quiet, charming but bookish Welshman, who has stupidly agreed to be Christine’s mandatory male-stripper and is now bitterly regretting it. Fair-play, he has absolutely no talent, as we discover when he is persuaded to show Jake the barman (James Fear) a few of his moves in a hilariously awkward and totally unsexy striptease. Jake is just demonstrating how it should be done when Christine comes back in search of Jessica, totally misreads the situation, and hauls him off to perform for the girls, leaving Jessica and Rob to discover that they are soulmates. Aaaah!

A very charming little piece, with a running time of slightly under 30 minutes, and which ticked all the boxes as a Festival play.

Ron and I both decided that, much as we’d enjoyed Bleadon Players’ comedy, the serious money was on IES’s Tone Clusters, and we shall look forward to seeing it at the Merlin in Frome, in just under two weeks’ time, on Saturday 17th July, competing against SUP Theatre in the afternoon session frpm 2pm. The St Albans Players and Actonians will be on in the evening from 7pm. Nancy Heath, Ass. GODA, will be giving a public adjudication at the end of each session and will be announcing the winners and giving out the trophies at about 9.30pm.

Tickets for one or both sessions can be ordered through the Merlin Box office at www.merlintheatre.co.uk