Thursday, 23 February 2012

Shotgun Theatre Company present Reefer Madness Kay House Lower Argyll Road, University Campus Wednesday - Saturday 22 - 25 February

A picture of innocence - in peril
Hollie Morgan is Mary Lane
Soprano soloist in an amazing new role
Anya Williams is Sally DeBanis
Last Tuesday (14th February) Freya Joseph was in the Phonic FM studio to discuss the latest production by Shotgun Theatre Company, "Reefer Madness". Freya (the Assistant Director) was joined at the microphone by leading actress Hollie Morgan, who is Mary Lane in the play. There was a lot of interesting talk about songs, dance numbers, and a contentious plot. There were also warnings - the play would not be suitable for children. Also the venue itself might be hard to find . .

It certainly is not obvious how to get in. The instructions given on Tuesday are correct:

Going north on Cowley Bridge Road, the turning into Argyle Road is on the right, just past the Esso service station. The entrance to Kay House is the first left.
However, this is a narrow driveway through the grounds of Jessie Mongomery House. Things look very unpromising until you reach the narrow gateway through into Kay House Duryard.

In a car it is better to climb the hill of Lower Argyll Road and take the left turning much higher up - to Duryard House. That will take you around to the same place - a reasonably sized car-park which can be used free of charge after 6pm. The way into the building is on the south side of Kay House - in the courtyard, tickets can be bought on the door. Trying to open any of the other doors after dark might lead to misunderstanding . . .

The remote location, and complicated route to get there, are strangely appropriate to the play that is taking place inside Kay House this week. "Reefer Madness" is a stage musical about young college students lured to a secret 'pot-house' where they are introduced to marijuana - and become involved in an intoxicating and dangerous world.

The den, and the way people find their way there is very reminiscent of the illegal 'speakeasy' drinking dens of the prohibition years. The original script was written in 1936, only three years after the repeal of the Volstead Act which banned the sale of alcohol in the United States - and which had made illegal trading profitable.

In addition to the fear of the narcotic effects of marijuana, parents were also afraid of grim underground culture of illegal drug trading that had reached terrifying proportions in the previous decade.

Church groups financed a movie intended to dissuade children from approaching drug dealers. Originally called 'Tell Your Children', the film depicts the scenario of a young boy causing a fatal road collision because he is driving under the influence of marijuana - and implicating the dealer who provided the drug, with potentially fatal consequences for himself.

The intentions of the film makers were somewhat undermined when Dwain Esper bought the rights and edited the film to make it more outrageous - and appealing to teenagers for a very different reason from the one originally intended. The more provocative title, 'Reefer Madness' was his idea.

In 1971 The National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws bought the rights and presented the film for completely the opposite reason to the one originally intended. College students were encouraged to enjoy the film as a comedy, ridiculing the fears of American parents in the 1930's.

A luridly colour-enhanced DVD version was released in 2004 on 20th April, the day often chosen for NORML political rallies. (In the USA 20th April is written 4/20, and was chosen because 4.20pm was meeting time and code word of a seventies pro-marijuana group in California.)

The serious subject of "Reefer Madness" is one that has divided opinion for a century at least. The film itself is also a warning against well-intentioned but ill-considered propaganda - which can be turned against its creators to comic effect.

Cue Kevin Murphy's 1998 stage musical version of "Reefer Madness". Using outrageous characters and slick dance numbers - to the great band music of Dan Studney. A serious morality tale you can laugh at is transformed into an evening of fast-paced entertainment. For this week's production special credit must go to Shotgun's choreographer, Caitlin McNerny, who worked so hard on all the dance routines.

The play starts with an engaging opening homily by our narrator, George Bradley. George's comic timing is spot-on and Murphy's words perfectly send up the original film script. But the satire on self-righteousness very soon gives way to uninhibited self indulgence. With a gesture from George the dancers stream onto the stage for a beautifully choreographed and perfectly executed opening number. The song, "Reefer Madness", sung and danced in such an over the top way immediately fills the hall a sense of well-being and hilarity.

The troupe is led by the incredibly arch Mr Poppy (Louis Williams) who throws himself into the action with incredible theatrical style. While George's links are great fun, Louis makes sure the audience have fun. The dancing and singing throughout the play are stunning. Such a large ensemble all working perfectly together, and used in such inventive ways. Sometimes sub-groups enter from the back of the auditorium, singing and dancing their way through the audience.

Sometimes they get invoved in the action, storming the 'pot-den' and accosting the main characters. The paranoia of marijuana psychosis is represented in dance, of course. White faced, the dancers slither onto the stage, like zombies in George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" - terrifying, but strangely comic.

Our two leading characters are the victims, Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane. Marcus Beard as Jimmy is a very convincing straight-A student complete with cardigan and cheesy grin. However, his uncanny resemblance to a young Anthony Perkins makes his slide into addiction and psychosis less of a surprise. Hollie Morgan is such a picture of innocence it's seems impossible that the same fate could befall her. But when it comes, the transformation - from Judy Garland to Judy Tenuta - takes only minutes.

Much of the action plays out in the den. Alex Worsfield is Jack Stone, a very ruthless character with no compunction about corrupting the young for profit - or the power it gives him over others. Alex's fits of barely controlled rage are partly tongue-in-cheek, but also terrifyingly convincing.

Stephanie Lysé is Mae Coleman, the gangster's moll with a conscience. She doesn't want children drawn into their way of life, but she has to do what Jack demands - or risk losing her supply of the 'stuff'. Stephanie's face is endlessly expressive and gives enormous punch to every comic device.

Against Mae is the totally dissolute Sally DeBanis, played by Anya Williams. Anya already features on these pages. She sang "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" ("Ye now are sorrowful") as soprano soloist at Marion Wood's performance of Brahms' Requiem with the Scholars' Ensemble in the University Great Hall on World Aids Day last year (1st December). What a transformation to the wantonly debauched Sally. Sally cares about nothing but the 'stuff' and, irresponsibly, has had a baby who is terribly neglected.

Sam Sayce is billed as 'Baby' - how does that work? You have to see the play to find out. Suffice to say, the baby is one of the high points of the evening - Sam steals the show with his cameo appearance - perfectly stage managed and lit. A little gem.

In classic theatrical overkill, another character pops up from time to time - Jesus, played by Jack Newton. Jesus, for some reason is naked except for the kilt of an Egyptian pharoah. Taken in conjunction with his avaiator shades the complete effect is confusing and intriguing. Jack, however, carries it off with style. A ridiculously vain Elvis-like character, he still carries the serious message of the original story - in a way that the original writers never dreamed of.

The Christian Church could offer Jimmy a way back to sanity and the world he left behind. Does Jimmy take the Messiah's advice? That you will have to find out for yourself.

With so many students wanting to join in the fun, it has been possible to include several extra, extraordinary characters - every one played beautifully. Katie Garrett is Joan of Arc (find out for yourself). Emma Ollis and Matt Nixon are Jimmy's appalled parents. George Simpson is the arresting officer. Ellie Bookham is the executioner. (I'm not saying whether anyone gets executed or not!). Who does Jimmy drive into, precipitating disaster? Matt Lövett performs the play's briefest rôle with style!

One character not mentioned yet is the mysterious background figure of Ralf Wiley (played by Tom Stanley). He appears to be a college fraternity scholar, whose mental faculties have been seriously compromised by cannabis. He appears in many scenes but often does little more than jabber incomprehensibly. When he does speak he can't even remember the name of his fraternity.

Where Marcus (as Jimmy) reminds us of Anthony Perkins, Tom Stanley's performance is a dead ringer for Dennis Weaver's pre-Bates-motel night manager in Orson Wells' 1958 'Touch of Evil' (showing at Exeter Picturhouse). There is more to this character than meets the eye, and Tom remains mysterious and unpredictable throughout.

In addition to great singing and dancing, the show is full of great acting. The direction, by Laura Doble and Freya Joseph, is constantly fresh and imaginative. Frozen action and clever lighting are used skilfully for dramatic and comic effect. On opening night, by a terrible mis-chance a prop (the vital cigarette lighter) dropped out of reach. The actors were forced to negotiate a way out - under the collective stare of the whole audience. They recovered well, and the minor glitch just highlighted the otherwise seamless performance by the whole cast and crew.

Some of the props are deliberately simple, made of papier-mâché and poster paint. A saving in production costs, but also great comic potential. One of the props most often seen is a small placard bearing a stern warning about marijuana. Each warning relates to the preceding action, and is presented in exaggerated parody of the original films sermonising. Wielding the placards to maximum effect is an important job in itself, with rich potential. One student gets to have sole responsibility for the placards - Danie Megranahan.

The make-up is incredible. Anya Williams transformation, in particular, is astounding. The costumes are very clever. Some of the characters are very skimpily dressed (Jesus in particular) or are undressed as part of the action. This may explain why the production team decided to give their play a '15 certificate'. However, it is quite apparent that all are quite adequately clothed under their costumes in leotards and tights!

And the Music? Rob Emmett conducts a small band on stage. Tim Cook plays piano, Dan Younger guiter, Mikey East clarinets and sax, Phil De Iongh Bass, and Laura Grist drums. It is wonderful to have live music - and played so well. The guitars are electric and the main singers and actors have mini-microphones. This is a lot of sound to control, but it is perfectly balanced by the technical team, allowing everyone to be heard. (Well done tech manager Mark Bowers.)

This is a wonderful play, and well worth the trouble of finding the entrance to Kay House to see it. Once you do find the way in, the students at the box office are extremely welcoming and will direct you to a table or a seat in the audience - it's all very informal. This run ends on Saturday with two performances.

Shotgun Theatre Company
Kay House, Exeter University Campus
Wednesday 22 February - Saturday 25 February
7.30pm with additional 2pm matinée on Sat 25
A musical theatre production
Tickets: £7 - book by email:

Next week there is more gangster action with Exeter University Theatre Company's 'The Resitable Rise of Arturo Ui' at the Northcott Theatre. My, but these students are busy!

Exeter University Theatre Company
Exeter Northcott Theatre
Wednesday 29 February - Saturday 3 March 7.30pm
(Hitler's rise to power is reflected in 30's Chicago . . . )
Tickets £12 (Concessions £8 Students £5))
Box Office: 01392 493493
Online: Wed  Thu  Fri  Sat
Information: Laura Pringle - 07792 008 744

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