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  • Sue Doherty

NEW LOOK NATIONAL FESTIVAL

48th British National Drama Festival – The Albany Theatre Coventry

Thursday 20th – Sunday 23rd July 2023


This festival took on a new format this year, and what a success it proved to be! Instead of running for a week it was condensed into eight sessions, with fifteen selected groups taking part, representing England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and Bonn. The adjudicator faced with this challenging task was the informative and entertaining Chris Baglin. Each session attracted good audience numbers.


Unfortunately, due to a family event I could not attend the opening session on Thursday July 20th. “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett was performed by Newpoint Players. This was the only short full length play to be selected for the festival. Feedback both from the audience and Chris described the production as “stunning “both from the performance and setting perspective.


We left Liverpool on the Friday morning, giving us what we thought would be ample time to arrive at The Albany Theatre for the matinee performance. Torrential rain, roadworks and numerous holdups made the journey a lot longer. We were not concerned when approaching Coventry, with little time to spare, as we have attended the festival before and knew the way to the theatre. Only to be confronted with the dreaded diversion sign! With literally minutes to spare we screeched into a parking bay at the Premier Inn and landed in our seats as the lights went down.


The first play up was “Beside The Seaside, Beside The Sea” a self-penned play by Jim Newcombe, performed by Off Centre Theatre Monmouth. The story follows the courtship and marriage of Helen and David. The two actors showed the romance of the early days of their relationship beautifully, and then the disillusionment with their marriage gradually causing them to drift apart. This was cleverly symbolised by the simple positioning and movement of two chairs. The scene at the seaside where their child is tragically drowned was powerful and heart rending.


Waterbeach Theatre Company followed with their performance “One Night in Toledo” another self-penned play, written by Mark Easterfield. The very effective set transported us to sunny Spain, set on a hotel terrace balcony enhanced by appropriate lighting and props. Two women, Leanna, played by Christine Easterfield and Penny, played by Wendy Croft meet. As they chat over a bottle of wine an uncomfortable history emerges. The bond which gradually grew between the two characters created an excellent build up to the shocking revelation of domestic abuse and rape.


In between sessions the Premier Inn proved to be a hive of activity, with several groups checking in for the festival and Bev Jenkins. What happened next was one of the most moving and endearing moments of the weekend. The Gibraltar group arrived and one of the youngest members of the team spotted Bev. He ran towards her and proceeded to give her the warmest embrace and said” you are my best adjudicator ever I can’t believe you are here!”. For those who don’t know Bev adjudicated the Gibraltar festival this year.


The evening session opened with “Metamorphosis” by Steven Berkoff performed by Woking College. I have taught this text to A level groups and seen many live professional and amateur productions, so was eager to see their interpretation. The stage presentation could not be faulted, the monochrome effect of the cavernous black stage contrasting with the stark white bed with subtle shades of grey and brown created powerful images. The whole ensemble displayed superb understanding of the text and the performance techniques of Berkoff. At one point Gregor played by William Bazzo delivered lines hanging upside down, suspended from the bedframe by his ankles! One of the best productions of this challenging play I have seen.


This was followed by “Anyone Can Dance “by Sean Baker, performed by Kingston Bagpuize Drama Group. Another two hander which looks at the relationship of Joe and Samantha, who have been together for six months. This was a lovely play to watch, which combined humour and despair. Set in a bedroom the couple talk about moments in their past, and we are transported back to different key eras in their lives. We were left to think about the idea of “what is meant to be “


The evening ended with “Bookends” by Scott Perry performed by New Kinver Players.

This performance captured the soullessness of old age beautifully, creating both humour and poignancy for the audience, set in a park Ron and Bill meet up after three weeks: Bill has been I Scarborough reliving his honeymoon and Ron, having escaped from his old people’s home, has been living it up on the ferry to Amsterdam. Too often we see plays set in a park with a bench, with little creativity and unimaginative use of the stage. This was not the case with this production. The projection of autumnal tones of trees and foliage beautifully symbolised the late autumn years of the two characters, and the performance space was well used throughout.


Two Studio Spotlights were held on Saturday morning. The first session The Self-Penned Play kicked off with a 40 minute script in hand performance of “Even Numbers” by Tony Domaille: the winner of the Derek Jacobi Playwriting Award and the Geoffrey Whitworth Trophy for Best original script.


It was interesting for The NDFA's Ian Thomas and me to watch this, as we had also seen a different cast deliver this at The British Final in Belfast, proving a script can be interpretated in different ways. This was followed by a discussion led by Tony and myself. The self-penned play was looked at from a writing and adjudicating point of view and the pitfalls which can be avoided. The audience were very responsive and complimentary.


The second session Getting Under The Skin of The GODA Marking System was delivered by myself and repeated the following morning. I must admit I was apprehensive; would it be of interest, and would I have an audience? Fortunately, my doubts were unfounded and both sessions were very well attended by audience members prior to the afternoon shows, directors and performers and Bev Jenkins! (No pressure there) Feedback was very complimentary, and discussions continued later after the performances. It is important as a professional body we are seen to be transparent, and I feel this was an example which had a positive outcome.


“The Pitman Painters” by Lee Hall, performed by Durham Drama Society was the first performance of the Saturday matinee session. To hear the lovely Northumbrian dialect made me feel nostalgic, especially when my childhood home Jesmond was mentioned. The use of projection of the original paintings was highly effective, as an audience we could appreciate the life above and below ground of the mining communities. The humour was captured, and a highlight was the individual reactions to the female model for the life drawing classes.


This was followed by “For the Sake of the Cobblestone Street that Takes Me to You” a self-penned play by Sepideh Tafazzzoli performed by Bonn University Shakespeare Company. The plot is inspired by the recent social movement in Iran called “Woman Life, Freedom” Ayoung woman, Azar, tries to appeal to the two judicial authorities of Safety and Liberty to save her country from the threat of civil war. The interaction of the three characters could not be faulted in this intense piece of theatre. The simple staging succeeded in creating some effective images emphasising the status of the characters.


The final production of this session was “Signed, Me” self-penned by Hannah Mifsud and Christian Santos, performed by GAMPA (Gibraltar Academy of Music and Performing Arts) This was a story about love, loss, and friendship beautifully narrated by the main character Adam. We embark on his journey with his friend Amy, through childhood, teenage years and beyond. The young actors who played Young Amy and Young Adam were enthralling in their naturalistic performances. The roles were then taken over by two older performers to depict their teenage years. What was evident here was the detailed direction which made us believe we were watching the same characters in later life. Subtle little mannerisms and motifs which repeated themselves. The set was simple but captivating, stark white cut outs of lavender bushes off set with a white bench and blocks. As an audience we laughed and cried as we followed Adam on his journey to adulthood. This was an example of excellent ensemble work from a company with impressive youth actors working alongside adults.


The penultimate session in the evening started with “The Medici Stars” self -penned by David Sear performed by The Combined Actors of Cambridge. A true story about how lives were transformed by Galileo’s discovery of moons round Jupiter, which challenged the foundations of Christian views of the Creation. Any historical play must show evidence of detailed research, and this was clearly reflected in this production. The action takes place in Rome over 22 years and shows how two friends Galileo and Barberini become bitter enemies. The stage presentation, especially the authentic costumes, combined with strong performances proved to make this an interesting and informative experience for the audience.

In complete contrast Didcot Phoenix Drama Group followed with “Virtual Reality” by Alan Arkin. We were treated to an absurdist two hander about one-upmanship. Two strangers in a warehouse planning a delivery of unknown goods. During a dry run they unpack virtual boxes with mysterious contents in preparation for the arrival of the real thing. The lines were delivered with wit, excellent timing, and physicality. The two actors played the farce with conviction and as result created great comedy for the audience.


The evening finished with “a Sudden, Violent Outburst of Rain” by Sami Ibrahim performed by TACT. It is described as “A poetic fable of an impenetrable immigration system that mirrors our own”. This was a production which showed ensemble acting at its best, a combination of strong individual performances and chorus. Every aspect of stage presentation was imaginative and executed with the utmost precision. The plight of migrants hit home through the shifting visuality. The final image of Lilli’s shoes left on the stage created a lasting haunting image for the audience.

Sunday afternoon began with “The Last Post” self-penned by Connor Vincent performed by St Christopher School. A group of clashing personalities find themselves locked in their local Wetherspoons during the zombie apocalypse. It was inspiring to see a large young company performing with such enthusiasm and evidence of strong teamwork. This was an amusing production which reminded us of lockdown rules in an absurdist way. The language was very explicit and did somewhat become very repetitive at times.

The final performance of the festival was “Two” by Jim Cartwright performed by Lane End Players. This was a highly impressive performance by the two actors. An example of multi role playing at its best. The superb use of contrasting vocal and physical skills made every single character convincing, creating moments of humour and sadness for the audience.

I did not envy Chris Baglin’s task in making his decisions for the various awards. His adjudications throughout had been concise and fair. I was intrigued by his use of postcards to deliver his comments. Swiftly they were moved from one pocket to another, how did he keep them in order? This proves the point, that as adjudicators we all have our own methods and to see each other in action is so valuable.

The Awards were as follows:

Michael Lees Award for Best Actor - Treasa Davey for Winnie in “Happy Days” Newpoint Players

Amateur Stage Award for Outstanding Festival Contribution - GAMPS Gibraltar

Sydney Fisher Award for Best Team Backstage - GAMPS Gibraltar

John Scowen Award for Best Comedy Moment- “Virtual Reality “Didcot Phoenix Drama Group

NDFA Best Youth Play “Metamorphosis”- Woking College

Derek Palmer Award for Best Youth Actor- William Bazzo for Gregor in “Metamorphosis”

Mary Blakeman Award for Best Full-Length Play- “Happy Days” Newpoint Players

NDFA Award for One Act Play Runner Up- “Metamorphosis” Woking College

Irving Trophy for Best One Act Play- “A Sudden, Violent Outburst of Rain” TACT

This was an inspiring festival and a reflection of the dedication and commitment of the NDFA Council and the determination of Rod Chaytor and Ruth Cattell to achieve the NDFA objective “To encourage as many groups and audience members as possible to participate in-and enjoy-amateur theatre”.


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