Friday, 7 February 2014

"August: Osage County" Exeter Northcott Theatre Wednesday 5 February - Saturday 8 February 2014

A standing ovation for the cast and crew of
Exeter University Theatre Company's new production
"August: Osage County" by Tracy Letts 2007

Exeter University Theatre Company's latest production has proved to be a tour de force of stamina and style. In three hours, thirteen Exeter University students take a capacity audience on a breathtaking tour of American family dysfunction in the capital of the Osage nation, Pawhuska Oklahoma.

"August: Osage County" opens with a brief, and intriguing, appearance by the patriarch of the Weston family. (Ciaran Elmes is Beverley Weston.) Beverley then disappears, having introduced an equally intriguing character, a first nation girl who is to work for the Westons as general factotum. (Bryonny Skinn is Johnna Monavata.)

The family diaspora reconvene to support Beverley's wife in the confusion that follows his disappearance. (Hannah Lawrence is Violet Weston.) In the tempest that follows, Johnna is the calm centre at the eye of the storm. Fearless and resourceful, the Westons' new servant offers a perfect contrast to the extraordinary attitudes and behaviour of the eight distressed family members who arrive in Pawhuska, bringing their own petty squabbles with them.

Violet dominates throughout. Partly, she keeps control by virtue of her position in the family hierarchy. Her nervous energy, wit and invective also ensure that she is always the winner of every argument. Most of all, it is the unpredictability resulting from her abuse of prescription drugs which makes it impossible for anyone to break through her armour of aggression.

Hannah Lawrence manages perfectly to recreate Violet's destructive energy which continues unabated for nearly all of the three acts. She delivers her stream of vitriol in an authentic Oklahoma accent distorted by drug induced dysphasia, and inflammation of her tongue following chemotherapy. Initially, what she says is hard to decypher, but the meaning is always abundantly clear.

The foil to the apparently bulletproof personality of Violet is her eldest daughter. (Katherine Stevens is Barbara Fordham.) Barbara shows extraordinary determination in her attempts to control her mother's excesses and resolve the many conflicts between her and her extended family.

Barbara arrives with her husband and daughter. (Darren Siah is Bill Fordham, and Kitty Wright is Jean Fordham.) All have secrets they are hoping to 'get past' Violet. As time passes, and Violet's character is revealed, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is a vain hope.

Jean's problems increase with the arrival of Violet's unmarried daughter and her latest beau. (Miranda Stewart is Karen Weston, and Ryan Whittle is Steve Heidebrecht.) Steve, despite his overtly sexual relationship with Karen, relentlessly and shamelessly pursues the 14 year old Jean from the outset. He finally meets his nemesis in an unexpected way, which is well worth the price of admission in itself.

Violet also has a younger sister whose husband now finds himself unexpectedly and incongruously the head of the Weston family. (Elizabeth Ryan is Mattie Fae Aiken, and Jordan Edgington is Charlie Aiken.) Mattie Fae and Charlie live in state of perpetual conflict, the mutual antagonism, which is initially hard to fathom. Later all becomes clear, of course.

The two remaining family members are both single. Violet's fourth daughter is now too old to have children of her own, but there is hope that she will find happiness in a suitable marriage. (Hannah Aldridge is Ivy Weston.) Last to appear on the scene, somewhat late to be involved in the drama of Beverley's disappearance, is Mattie Fae and Charlie's rather infantile and ineffectual son. (Philippe Edwards is Little Charles Aiken.)

These last two would seem to be the least complicated of the characters, but Tracy Letts has special plans for them. In the final denouement their stories transpire to be as significant as those of all the other multi-coloured characters.

Lastly, one must not forget the only off-set character, the Pawhuska Sheriff who is in charge of the search for the missing Beverley and, not surprisingly, turns out to have more involvement in the family story that initially meets the eye. (Luca Owenbridge is Deon Gilbeau.)

Congratulations to Georgia Posner and Alexandra Teldesley, co-producers (and their Fundraising Manager Lucy Kinghorn), for bringing together the resources to put on a live performance of this extraordinary play. The publicity team have done extremely well to create such a stir with EUTCo's new work, especially at exactly the same time that the Smokehouse movie production of Tracy Lett's screenplay of the same story is on general release. (Well done Jamie Manton and his team - Aisling Fahey, Becky Westwood and Anna Varadi.)

Jamie Manton was also co-director with Lucy Hirst. As with all student productions the trick is to convince the audience that a cast, all of whom are between 18 and 22 years old, vary in age from 14 to 70.

Where Exeter students are concerned expectations are naturally positive. Luke Theobald's watertight performance as the eighty year old Dogsborough in "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui" (Northcott March 2012) set the bar high for this brand of theatrical progeria.

Costume Designer Emma True and the make-up team have worked their magic, distinguishing the generations as far as possible by physical means. As the story is set in 2007, characters of all ages might appear in jeans and loafers, but some distinction is possible using wardrobe alone. Skin colour, fake lines and of course the odd grey hair, help the illusion.

More important, however, is the consistency of the acting. No one is ever allowed to forget who belongs to which generation and who defers to whom. Given that the demarcations are sometimes other than what might be expected, keeping the illusion alive and every interaction convincing for the duration of such a long play is a credit to all concerned.

Bravely, all the actors have agreed to stay on set even when other characters are the centre of attention. To facilitate this feast of mini-performances the already large Northcott stage has been extended upwards. Black-clad scaffolding supports two separate stages representing the first floor bedrooms and Johnna's servant's quarters in the attic.

Stage Manager Dan Atticus and his team (Stuart Cottrell, Katy Dash, Amy Squires and Ben Taylor) are to be congratulated on the design and construction of such an ingenious and effective edifice. The dynamic effect of drawing the collective eyes of the audience up and down and around the Weston house is well worth the extra effort and expense, and adds significantly to the sense of intimacy in the close quarters of the dark, hot and stuffy confines of Violet's domain.

What a pity that Wednesday's opening night had to be cancelled owing to the ubiquitous devastation of this week's deluge. The roof of the Northcott Theatre was breached by the rain and wind making a stage production, with all its electrical and other safety concerns, unworkable.

As the theatre seats 464, this represented a serious loss of revenue, not to mention the disappointment for the huge number of excited theatre-goers looking forward to this spectacular piece. However, all was ship-shape for Thursday evening and the postponed opening. With the rebooking of seats from Wednesday, the auditorium was filled to capacity.

The universal and unreserved reactions of the crowd to the action was unprecedented in Northcott history. The cries of approbrium and/or fear, the barks of laughter, and the cheer that greeted a certain person's come-uppance, were unselfconscious and full of natural energy. The final standing ovation which followed the last agonising line of the play was was as inevitable as it was unanimous.

A first class performance by all concerned. Many thanks especially to informal liaison officer Dan McNiell and to Producer Georgia Posner for arranging a visit to the Phonic FM studio on Tuesday to spread the news of this theatrical treat.

Full details of how to find out about tickets for the remaining two performances (if any seats remain!) can be found below. Also watch this space for details of the next EUTCo production. Alan Bennett's "The History Boys" will be on stage in the M&D (Music & Drama) Room at Devonshire House (Streatham Campus) in less than five weeks' time - quite some turn around!

Première: 28 June 2007
Steppenwolf Theatre
Exeter University Theatre Company
Exeter Northcott Theatre
Wednesday 5 - Saturday 8 February 7.30pm

Winner of the Pulitzer Drama Prize 2008
Tracy Letts' dark comedy about a

dysfuncional Oklahoma family in crisis.
Tickets: Wed/Thur £12 Fri/Sat £14
Concessions: £8
School Groups of 10+: £6 each 11th FREE
(Age restriction: 16+)
Box Office: 01392 493493 10am-6pm Mon-Sat
or book online (Over-50s reading Wed 29 Jan)

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