The Children’s Hour and Julius Caesar, AUB students at Poole Lighthouse

ARTS University Bournemouth’s drama courses have produced some exceptional work in recent months, testing the students with inventive double-casting and imp­ro­v­isational adaptations, as well as more conventional work. Their colleagues on the university’s costume and stage design courses have worked closely with the varied productions to hone their skills for careers in the theatre.

The first outings for 2018 took the students back to Poole’s Light­house, where they are presenting two “relevant” plays as a double feature.

Kenneth Robertson’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, running around three hours and with a cast of 19, offers an expansive chance for all the members of the course to play a significant role. The familiar story is always relevant, especially when charismatic egomaniacs sway the populace.

Lillian Hellman’s controversial 1934 play The Children’s Hour, directed here by David O’Shea, is an intense dissection of the potential effect of lies. Often played as a vehicle for the two women at its centre, this production gives detailed weight to each character, all brilliantly played by the young actors.

Hellman’s story starts in a New England school, where two teachers, friends since college, have bought a farm and set up a school. After years of scrimping and saving they are beginning to make headway.

The play is about how one spoiled and malicious child and one whispered lie can ruin lives. What Mary Tilford told her doting grandmother was “fake news” at its most toxic.

The Children’s Hour is a tense drama, and Mary is a model for The Crucible’s Abigail Williams. She is played here with malevolent, manipulative, wheedling insouciance by Sophie Strawbridge.

Holly McLachlan (so impressive as Orlando in last autumn’s As If) is the tortured Martha Dobie, and Niamh Hayter her unsuspecting partner Karen.

Chris Normington makes the often two-dimensional Jo Cardin into a warmly convincing integral part of the drama, with Joanne Denson as the deluded grandmother, and Elizabeth Stefanec as Agatha, the only person who sees Mary as she really is.  Natalie Garwood’s bullied and frightened Rosalie is particularly impressive among the girls, but there is not a weak link here in this moving reading of the play.

The input of the costume design department is always important in AUB productions, and in Julius Caesar the “costume interpreters” are given their own credits, presumably under the guidance of the overall designer Alex White.

Sorry to have to say this, but when the costume, however radical, detracts from the characters and their performances, as well as the progress of the play, it simply does not work. There’s a deal of gender balancing at work here, so some characters we are accustomed to meeting as men turn up as women and for the most part they have the best of the costumes, which mostly seem like an uncomfortable mixture of Vivienne Westwood, Roaring ‘20s (paper!) flapper and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with a very strange overlay of white ISIS desert gear for the conspirators. Everyone has grey leggings bound haphazardly with duct tape!

I should not be using space on this, so to turn to the performances.

Some are inspired, following directorial ideas with incisive energy. Outstanding among them are Fola Adeyoola’s Brutus, Yvonne Grundy’s Cassius and Sara Cribdon’s Casca, with Cy Grove’s giggling, Donald Trump Jnr-like Caesar an interesting idea, and Meg MacMillan’s Calpur­nia truly moving.

I saw it on the first night, and probably the pace will have increased as the actors become more familiar with the setting of the Lighthouse stage.


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