(Circle Dreams Around) The Terrible, Terrible Past/ Old Times – Connections Festival, National Theatre

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Simon Longman/ Molly Taylor

Directors: Andrew Leggott/ Alan Wood

Ilkley Players Greenroom and Bourne Academy open this year’s Connections Festival run by the National Theatre, a five-night event that showcases the theatrical talents of 10 youth group companies and school groups. Performing brand-new plays, especially commissioned by the National, the 10 groups playing at the Dorfman Theatre this week were selected from 264 groups taking part all across the country. The festival isn’t just a celebration of acting, but also of backstage roles too like set and costume design. It’s a sure way to guarantee the future of theatre.

Ilkley Players Greenroom has the more ambitious play of the first evening. Simon Longman’s (Circle Dreams Around) The Terrible, Terrible Past is as complicated as its title. His play is a non-linear meditation on bad dreams, future careers and mass extinctions, themes that probably keep many a teenager awake at night. One scene sees the cast discussing a recent visit to the school by the local careers officer. He tells one student that she should become a chimney sweep while to others he suggests that they become water carriers. These jobs from the past haunt the dreams of one young woman.

Her dreams always start and end with the loss of a shoe, but this shoe and the job of fishmonger hold together Longman’s play which could otherwise drift away like a fever dream itself. Just when the narrative seems to have taken a wrong turn, a reluctant farmer comes on stage clutching the missing shoe or a fishmonger appears ready to sell his slippery wares.

While the play may be too perplexing for some, the 21-strong cast underpins the piece’s more confusing elements with humour. There’s a very funny conversation about irony and sarcasm, but the characters fail to understand the subtle differences between the rhetorical devices. However, most of the lines delivered by the actors are in nonchalant tones so loved by teenagers. Even when Planet Mars explodes, the cast is suitably unbothered. All the comic turns by the actors ensure that the play isn’t too morbid. The young audience is visibly engaged and it’s certain we will see Longman’s play again.

Director Andrew Leggott makes sure that each actor gets their own time in the spotlight and each deals well with the surreal nature of the show. Perhaps the pace could be a tad quicker at times, and the circle the actors make on stage at the end means that some voices of those whose backs now face the audience are lost. But thankfully, there are subtitles for the show and in the big scheme of things these are very slight criticisms.

Bourne Academy performing Old Times by Molly Taylor at 2023 NT Connections Festival (c) Jimmy Lee

Lincolnshire’s Bourne Academy take on Old Times by Molly Taylor. The story, a whodunnit of sorts, is easier to follow but again, with a large cast, the play brings a different set of challenges for the young creatives to overcome. The cast is split in two. One half plays a group of 18-years old meeting up to discuss the old times. The other half play their younger selves at the age of 13. Something which happened at this time haunts them in the present. Through flashbacks, Taylor’s play examines childhood loyalty and betrayal.

There’s a wonderful moment early in the play, when the younger characters come on stage. They swirl amidst their grown-up versions like affectionate, yet wary, ghosts. Sometimes it’s hard to work out the pairings but director Alan Wood does enough with a few well-selected garments – a pink shawl here, an upturned collar there – to illustrate which character is being played, albeit by two actors. The acting is solid throughout but Skye Harper as the older Belle commands the stage.

Only playing one character is Zion Serino-Jordan. He is Tom Joy who has just been released from prison and who appears to be heading back to town to wreak revenge or perhaps find justice. Serino-Jordan gives Tom a swaggering innocence that makes his jail sentence a surprise. But we must wait until the end of the play to discover what crime he has committed.

The cast deals smoothly with the limited space and it’s a nice touch that both sets of characters are on stage at the same time. Whichever grouping sits at the back seems to judge the decisions of those playing out in front of them. Playwright Taylor’s play isn’t a simple comparison of past sins and adult responsibilities. Old Times is more nuanced than that and the Bourne Academy ably gives it the layers it needs.

With such strong performances from both Ilkley Players Greenroom and Bourne Academy, it looks like it will be an excellent week at the National.

Reviewed on 20 June 2023 and the Connections Festival runs until 24 June 2023

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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