Writers: Jon Brittain and Shamser Sinha
Directors: Steph Biggs and Barrie Stott
Friday’s programme in the National Theatre’s Connections 2023 Festival brings to the Dorfman two groups of young actors, from St. Thomas the Apostle School in South East London, and from Aberystwyth Arts Centre Youth Theatre. They offer radically different dramatic effects in their hour-long plays.
The London school presents Model Behaviour, a comic piece by Jon Brittain. A strikingly absent teacher offers his class the opportunity to present a model United Nations, a forum to debate matters of world importance, to seek peaceful solutions to threats and to develop ways of resolving conflicts through discussion. Most of the class consider this nonsense but it is an offer gleefully accepted by Ruby Nganga’s Ronnie, who thinks that it’s useful preparation for her future career in politics. She expresses her enthusiasm loudly and committedly while her classmates still think it’s a massive waste of time.
Particularly opposed is Ronnie’s nemesis, bully and confrere, Connor (Milo Gray). Connor uses his destructive competence to derail debate, get votes recast, and generally undermine Ronnie’s plans. When she gets cross about that, he points out her tendency to browbeat and bulldoze rather than debate: she changes her approach. There is a happy resolution, and boys and girls pair off in happy romantic couples, after a collective resolution to address climate change.
The comedy hits harder than the slightly by-the-numbers debate, but it is an energetically pursued light comedy and lots of the jokes land well. Temi Fagbaye’s Chris is sweet and funny, and Jon Brittain’s script gets a good, if occasionally hard-to-hear, airing. The setting is simple, the tech is well-worked, and the show gets a rapturous reception.
Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s offering Samphire is a horse of a very different colour. Set in Suffolk, actors speaking with strong Suffolk accents, the play is poetic, symbolic, and full of dogs. The company tells the story of two isolated children in a mainstream school, tormented by their classmates, misunderstood by their teacher, constantly threatened with Special School. Alicia and Jake, strikingly played by Mathilda Crompton and Osian Jewell, give each other solace in a world that seems to be stacked against them wherever they go.
Jake’s love for his little lurcher dog Luna, energetically and cutely played by Ash George with big fluffy ears, is his main solace. He is living wild on the salt marshes outside Ipswich, collecting samphire. Samphire holds a symbolic value which is never made fully apparent, but its significance informs the piece – Alicia and George collect it, share it, and eat it. It is a connection between the two young people, between them and the environment they are growing up in, and between them and nature.
The direction is very ambitious. There are scrims with actors as dogs outlined in blue backlight, hunts and battles in half-light, and passages of dialogue heavily freighted with poetry and symbolic force. It is perhaps an over-reach for a company so young. The ‘Riddley Walker on the Fens’ ambition of the company from Aberystwyth is a very brave, very noteworthy attempt at serious drama, but the occasional drop in volume making the abstract arguments hard to follow is a drawback. The underdeveloped sub-plot that involves dog-fighting and ultra-right nationalist groups never makes itself felt. But overall the performances are committed, ambitious, and interesting.
The Connections Festival offers two contrasting productions that nonetheless showcase fresh talent and offer considerable promise for the future.
Reviewed on 23 June, Connections Festival runs till 24 June
Tickets are available on the NT website for £5. Applications are also open to take part in Connections 2024