Thursday, 18 October 2018

Students’ take on Orton is a farce to be reckoned with

AS with any farce, what Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw really needs is

AS with any farce, what Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw really needs is a cast with oodles of energy, impeccable comedic timing, and no reservations about nudity or cross-dressing.

Admittedly, I had my doubts that the Henley College’s production at Norden Farm would possess all of these qualities — and they were all proven to be entirely unfounded.

Very daring for a college show, I was struck by how bravely the entire company dealt with the script.

Within the first five minutes, Libby Welsh (as Geraldine Barclay) was stripping down to her smalls, and by the end, all but one of the cast had followed suit!

It’s rare to come across a group of students who tackle such content with the readiness and skill that they exuded.

All of the actors had their own strengths, each crafting a distinctive character. From Harry Assadourian’s alarming grimace as the mad Dr Rance, to Zach Morris’s authoritative, deep-voiced policeman, the traits of the characters were portrayed and exaggerated brilliantly.

Christian Gittings was excellently cast as Dr Prentice, with his exasperated expressions and outbursts utterly perfect to lead us through the madness of the story.

His pacing was near impeccable, knowing when to pause for laughter and when to keep the energy up. And above all, his strength lay in his voice: every word was as crisp and clear as the next, every emotion conveyed predominantly through his tone.

Gittings did sometimes appear to slip out of character when not speaking, as his reactions were at times muted. This was, however, only occasional, and certainly not true of his co-star Georgia Stewart, as Mrs Prentice.

At any given moment, Stewart was listening and responding, completely immersed in her character. Her diction, too, was a marvel, and she was totally believable as the bitter and contemptuous wife.

From some sneaky audience eavesdropping, I learned that it was Libby Welsh’s first time in a principal role.

Whilst there was an air of shyness to her, which may be down to inexperience, it lent itself to her character of the secretary: confused, naive and unfortunate.

Welsh appeared to grow in confidence as the play went on, and was particularly delightful when pretending to be a boy. However, the prize for best cross-dressing has to go to Matt Hawes as Nicholas Beckett, sashaying about the stage in a red dress, blonde wig and heels.

Seeing this lanky young man tottering around, with fake high-pitched-female voice to boot, was hands down one of the funniest moments of the entire show.

And that’s saying something, given the audience’s raucous laughter throughout.

That’s not to say this production was flawless. A few jokes were slightly milked, a couple of silences too drawn out, the red rose on the desk completely obscured Christian Gittings’ face at times — but I’m getting picky now.

On the whole, the Henley College did a wonderful job of presenting the tangled web of hilarity that all stems from a man trying to hide his infidelity. Their mastery of the script was clear, and a credit to all involved.

If the future of theatre lies with young people as confident and talented as these, then I’m pretty sure it’s in safe hands.

Amy Nicholas

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