Should GCSE Drama students be able to pass without stepping foot inside a theatre?

In a recent Drama lecture at my university, I was shocked to discover that a large portion of the students in attendance had not been to the theatre within the last year.  For me this seemed unbelievable and quite frankly unacceptable. Surely Drama students not only need to go to the theatre, but also very much want to, and as there are plenty of opportunities for young people to see see fantastic theatre thriftily what excuse could a student studying Drama possibly give for not having gone to the theatre at least once in the last year? 
The way I see it, arts jobs are limited as it is, and although theatre (and West End theatre in particular) is often quite lucrative, those working in the industry don't always receive the highest salaries. I go to the theatre quite often, and as such I like to think that I am doing my bit to support the industry that I want to work in. To complain about not being able to find an arts job while not supporting the arts industry oneself is hugely hypocritical.

But how does this fit in with the current discussion about whether GCSE Drama students should have to attend live theatre as part of their qualification? 

Well first and foremost it should be noted that the Drama GCSE isn't designed to provide in-depth training in acting, stage managing, directing etc., just as GCSE Biology students don't finish their GCSEs as qualified doctors. GCSE Drama is meant to ignite a passion for theatre within those who study it so that they can go on to study it in further depth at college and eventually university or drama school. For some it is the first step on the route to a career in the arts industry. 

Of course, recorded theatre via Digital Theatre or National Theatre Live etc. is an absolutely brilliant innovation which I myself have utilised countless times. However, nothing compares to the immediacy, intimacy and pure excitement of sitting in a theatre and experiencing a play first hand. To deny a young person the chance to experience the thrill of live theatre would be shameful. Digital theatre productions should be shown to students in addition to seeing live theatre, not as an alternative. To replace a trip to the theatre with classroom experience is to devalue the importance of going to the theatre, and makes it seem like an inconvenience rather than something to be enjoyed. 

But most importantly, on the most basic level, students studying Drama should be seen as just as important as those studying any other subject. At my school Language students could go on weeklong trips to France, Geography students went on residential trips to Wales to study tourism there, and Science students went to seminars and workshops at local universities. Therefore the idea that Drama students shouldn't be allowed an afternoon off to visit the theatre is a completely laughable, and highlights the way some educators view GCSE drama and those who study it. 

So in conclusion, although I am a huge fan of recorded plays, the idea that an impressionable 14 year old could spend 2 years studying drama and never once step inside a theatre is just laughable.

Review - Legally Blonde (Leicester Curve)

Legally Blonde, the ever popular musical, has burst onto the Leicester Curve's stage in a furore of glorious pinkness. The show, based on the 2001 film of the same name, tells the story of Malibu sorority girl Elle Woods, who follows her preppy ex boyfriend Warner Huntington III to Harvard Law School in order to try and win him back, but once she arrives she finds a new love...justice! This feel good show was first seen on the West End in 2009, but the production in Leicester (directed by Nikolai Foster) is completely new, but just as brilliant.
Photo credit - Catherine Ashmore
In the past, Legally Blonde has received criticism from some for it's lightweight story and stereotypical characters, but while some of the show's themes do seem a little dated in 2016, its overarching moral that 'being true to yourself never goes out of style' is as relevant today as ever.

Lucie Jones is outstanding in the hugely demanding role of ditzy yet tenacious Elle, a character who is hardly off stage for the whole show. She has a fantastic voice and a winsome charm, and these elements combined make her an absolutely wonderful leading lady. Playing opposite Jones in the role of Emmett Forrest, Jon Robyns is equally impressive, particularly in his act 1 number, Chip On My Shoulder, which serves as a montage to show Elle's advancement as a law student. The song is excellently sung and provides some great character building moments, which help to drive the story forwards.
The songs of Legally Blonde (written by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin) are invariably fantastic, and catchy numbers like the shows opening song Omigod You Guys, and the brilliantly heartening Legally Blonde Reprise really help to solidify the show's fun and upbeat tone. Interestingly, a few songs have been altered slightly or given a new twist. The most memorable and notable example of this is the new Bollywood twist on the rap section of What You Want. While the twist may be a little jarring to those familiar with the song, it is fun and refreshing, and showcases the vocal talents of Jamal Andreas, who also stands out both as part of the ensemble and in his roles as Padamadan and Nikos Argitakos.

Designer Matthew Wright's dazzling set design is pink perfection, and lighting design by Ben Cracknell is equally rosy. The overall effect is an almost overbearing pinkness which transports the audience to Elle Wood's world brilliantly. Although at times the stage does seem a little bare, and some moments (especially during big ensemble numbers) do get a little lost in the space, this is a small weakness in what is otherwise an unfalteringly enjoyable show. 

It is fantastic to see such a brilliant, high quality musical theatre production in the Midlands, proving that theatregoers don't have to travel all the way to London to see great theatre. Legally Blonde at the Leicester Curve features a top-notch cast and impressive creative team, and the result is magical. 

Legally Blonde is running at the Leicester Curve until Saturday 14th May before heading to the Deagu Opera House in South Korea where it will run from 25th June - 2nd July.

Review - The Maids (Trafalgar Studios)

At the Trafalgar Studios Jamie Lloyd's revival of Jean Genet's 1947 The Maids is currently playing. Updated, and with a focus on racial as well as economic subjugation, The Maids is a striking and unsettling play about two maids who plot to murder their wealthy employer.
The text itself addresses issues of power, identity, servitude and hatred in a way which feels fresh and relevant today, partly thanks to Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton's 2013 translation of the script. Laura Carmichael made the most of her single scene, and played the brattish Mistress excellently. Uzo Aduba was excellent as scheming masochistic maid Solange, and spat each of her lines vehemently. But Zawe Ashton gave perhaps the most compelling yet understated performance as Claire, a sultry yet skittish maid who relishes in impersonating her mistress, mimicking her voice and mannerisms, as well as her hair and makeup, before fantasising about her violent murder. However, despite the intriguing concept and gripping performances, the plot seemed to lose momentum in the middle, and the characters motivations were never clarified. Additionally, some of the later monologues served to do little more than add padding to the already overblown and repetitive script, and as such the play built towards an affecting yet rather low key final scene.

Lighting design and sound design created a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere, and the set (a four poster bed showered with flowers which the maids sweep away futilely for a large portion of the play) which helped to establish a perturbing if rather overt juxtaposition between the penurious maids and their wealthy, opulent Mistress. 

However, while the production looked and sounded fantastic, and was acted brilliantly, the production felt overt, and despite the text's violent and masochistic scenes this production of The Maids lacked substance and punch, and therefore despite the unfalteringly excellent performances of all three actresses, it was hard to understand the behaviours of the characters, let alone sympathise with them.
Photo credit - Mark Brenner
In Lloyd's revival of The Maids, the roles were cast perfectly and the set design was simple and yet gorgeously stylised. However, long overblown monologues and odd tonal shifts meant that The Maids sadly lacked the pace needed for a memorable ending. This production will surely polarise audiences, but there can be doubt that The Maids is one of the most stylish, well-acted productions in London right now. 

Review - The Taming of The Shrew (Above The Arts)

In a tiny studio space in the heart of the West End, an intriguing new gender reversed production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew is currently playing. 
Staged in the small studio space Upstairs at The Arts, Custom/Practice's gender reversed production of The Taming of The Shrew couldn't have found a more appropriate performance space. The stage was small and claustrophobic and served to emphasise the entrapment of Katherina at the hands of Petruchio in the play. Production designer Anna Driftmeier's rather lavish looking, if minimalistic set shared many conventions with traditional Jacobean stages, such as a hiding space (a pillar and a curtain), several entrances and exits and a place where the actor could appear higher than others. That, combined with the minimalist and symbolic use of props, harkened back to the play's original staging conditions, while simultaneously skewing them. A theme which ran throughout the play.

Use of costume in the production was also interesting, and served to further blur the lines between the traditionally 'male' and 'female', with the female cast members sporting ruffs and male cast members wearing corsets and heels. Although I enjoyed the subversion of traditional gendered clothing, the mixture of clothing styles meant that the piece did not appear to be linked to any particular time period, and although this was doubtlessly intentional, it was a rather distracting element.

However, the idea of men playing women in Shakespearean plays has long been a fascinating one, as it gives modern day audiences an idea of how the boy players of the 1600s may have been perceived on stage. However, in Custom/Practice's reimagining, it is the female actors playing the male roles which are most interesting. Brigid Lohrey showed a wonderfully entertaining mastery of physical comedy as Gremio and Eugenia Caruso made Hortensio her own and got some fantastic laughs, particularly during some fourth wall breaking moments in the second act. It was Martina Laird's arresting Petruchio which really stole the show though. Commanding the space with ease and exuding an imposing air every time she was on stage, Laird gave her character a rather sinister edge, and yet was also convincing as the romantic lead of the show. Notably her onstage chemistry with Kazeem Tosin Amore's corseted Katherina was also tangible.  

Although the play itself does perpetuate some nasty misogynistic themes which gender reversal does little to curtail, Custom/Practice's gender reversed production of The Taming of The Shrew was executed with energy and passion and comedic flair, and certainly made for an enjoyable night out. 

Introduction to my Edinburgh Fringe adventure (Network of Independent Critics)

I am so excited!

From 17th-22nd August 2016 I will visiting the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, not as a performer, but as a critic! I was fortunate enough to be selected to join the Network of Independent Critics, whose goal is to champion quality arts writing outside the mainstream press. It was such an honour to be selected and I couldn't be more excited.
Let me tell you a bit more about why it is so vital that independent arts critics are given the opportunity to review productions at the Edinburgh Fringe...

Due to the quantity of shows put on at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, it is unsurprising that most don't benefit from critical coverage. This is unfortunate, as not only does it play an important role in ticket sales, it is also incredibly useful for both the performers and the creatives involved.

That's where the Network of Independent Critics comes in. This summer 24 independant critics will descend upon the Edinburgh Fringe, each writing about their niche specialism. Children's theatre, drag and cabaret, new writing, stand-up, opera, and work by young people are just some of the areas which will be covered.

I myself will be writing about new musical theatre and small cast/ two hander shows, two areas which I am very passionate about championing.

However, funding a weeklong stay in Edinburgh is not an easy feat. Online critics who write for their own websites and blogs, or create vlogs or podcasts, do so because they are passionate about theatre. Ordinarily, they receive no financial assistance, and therefore a weeklong visit to the fringe is a huge financial commitment, which deters countless critics each year.

So how can you help?

If you're passionate about the arts then please consider supporting the Network of Independent Critics via their Fringefunder crowdfunding campaign. Not only will you be helping to support the online arts critics whose work is becoming more and more vital as arts criticism decreases in mainstream media, you'll also be helping to ensure that performers and performing arts companies get the critical recognition they deserve.

If you're not 100% convinced yet then you might also be interested to know that there are tons of perks for backers, such as a postcard from the Edinburgh Fringe, the chance to get your hands on a complete bundle of 1 critic's work from the festival, and the opportunity to choose a production which a critic will review for you! More information about these perks, and more, make sure you visit the Network of Independent Critics Fringefunder page. 

Even if can't give to the crowdfunding campaign if you'd like to help out in another way then please consider sharing this post on social media.

Thanks so much for your support! If you'd like to know more about the Network of Independent Critics then give them a follow on twitter, or like their facebook page.  

Additionally, if you are interested in having a show reviewed then please don't hesitate to get in touch.