MY mother began taking me to the theatre as a very young child, but my first “grown up” memory of the moment I realised that live performance would be a lasting passion was seeing Joan Plowright play St Joan at Chichester Festival Theatre.
I was staying with my godmother in Brighton, and for the next three days I didn’t want to meet anyone, because they hadn’t shared the experience and so we would have nothing to say.
It was a bit like that coming out of the tiny Arts University studio in Bournemouth after seeing Kirsty Davis’s production of Festen, David Eldridge’s stage adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s film. Such was the impact of the student performances that conversation seemed like sacrilege.
Performed in the small and intimate rectangular studio, with two rows of audience on either side and most of the action happening at the long dining table between them, there is no escape for the performers or for the watchers, drawn into the action along with the servants.
These young actors, who have joined the prestigious course as the next step to professional stage careers, achieved a realism and intensity that was as compelling as it was astonishing. The director had obviously spent time on every element of every characterisation, so that no matter where you looked on stage there was no shred of doubt that everyone was totally involved in the ghastly horror of the story and the stumbling race to the denouement.
Matt Williams’s Christian, the eldest son, was almost unbearable to watch, determination driving him on through the fear and dread. His sister Helene (Olivia Spencer) was torn between childish games and an unwelcome recognition of reality.
And the coarse and brutal Michael (Alex Pinard) finally recognised Christian in a scene that brings tears to my eyes as I write this.
There really wasn’t one chink of weakness in any of this cast, from the family and “guests” through to the waiters and waitresses serving the food in the family’s restaurant.
James Jollie’s tottering grandfather provides the welcome, but still chilling, humour, and it was a perfect personation of an old man.
Esmie Jappy was the mother, living, as she had for years, in a blind trance.
Ben Goldsmith had the difficult task of playing Helge, an arrogant, charismatic and venal man. He has two lines that etch themselves in your brain, one excusing his behavior as it was “all the children were worth” and the other, saying goodbye by telling his remaining children that they would always be his children. He spoke it as reassurance. It was a curse.
If this is the sort of performance we can expect from the current batch of AUB students, start clamouring for your tickets now. Visit the university website for details.