NT Connections Festival: The Lowry Studio

I wrote the following reviews for the Manchester Theatre Awards Youth Panel at the beginning of May – both productions formed part of the NT Connections Festival and were performed at The Lowry’s studio theatre.

In the list of plays being performed at The Lowry by young theatre groups as part of the NT Connections Festival, Eugene O’Hare’s Hospital Food appears only once. It’s no wonder – focussing on a group of teenage cancer patients, Hospital Food examines broad themes of friendship, identity and fate and how they are affected by terminal illness. It’s sensitive subject matter, and PurpleCoat Youth Theatre deserve credit for making such a bold choice.

The play’s action takes place in The Retreat, a ‘safe zone’ within the hospital where the young people can get away from parents and doctors. The sanctity of this place is driven home by the characters’ repeated pledge not to share anything that is said or done within The Retreat, and also in the way set changes work – the cast build their sacred space onstage before our eyes with pillows, blankets and chairs.

The plot focuses on Gus, one of the older patients and lynchpin of the group. When he confides to his friends that his mother is taking him abroad to an alternative therapies centre, the consequences ripple through the rest of the piece. Ensuing scenes reveal the characters reacting in different ways – one girl passionately argues against it and threatens to report Gus’ planned escape, while others appear resigned to his decision. The cast’s performance is convincing, moving and very mature – the relationship between Gus and his gruff best friend, Josh, is particularly touching. O’Hare’s script is astute and naturalistic, though sadly there are some issues with projection and enunciation which means some lines are lost.

Humour plays an important part in Hospital Food, providing some light relief from the dark subject matter and giving the characters an extra dimension. They mock crystal treatments and homeopathy, asserting that patients would be better off drinking their own urine, while Gus laughs at Josh for biting all the chocolate off his KitKat. In another scene, one girl is derided for sending Gus a postcard, wishing him luck and inadvertently revealing his escape plans. Sound is used effectively throughout – beeps undercut scene changes, emphasising the hospital setting, while the opening sequence combines a bright spotlight and sombre piano to highlight Gus’ isolated mental state. Music plays on audience emotions at the end of the piece, and gives Gus’ departure from the hospital an air of finality. When Josh wakes and sees his friend has gone, he crawls into Gus’ bed, a truly touching moment that communicates far more than any lengthy dialogue between the characters could.

As the well-intentioned postcard reads, “cancer doesn’t destroy friendships – friends destroy friendships.” This line sums up Hospital Food perfectly, as no matter how ill the characters are or how tough things get, they have The Retreat and each other to depend on. But Gus’ abandonment of his friends – and their potential to betray him – sadly reminds us that even these things are temporary.

Sarah Solemani’s satire on teenage ‘fangirls,’ The Crazy Sexy Cool Girls’ Fan Club, is ideal for the NT Connections Festival. It is strong, contemporary and ultimately youthful in both script and concept, a play that would be cringeworthy with an older cast. But in the hands of the New Vic Youth Theatre, this piece is funny, observant, occasionally moving and totally convincing.

The Fan Club in question is made up of four friends, bonded by their mutual obsession with all-male pop group The Band. When new girl Jess joins The Fan Club, she encourages the girls to pursue the band members, pushing their way through physical and mental barriers until – in a surreal twist – they end up destroying The Band and resolving to create their own. The satire comes thick and fast, targeting several aspects of modern social culture. From the moment The Fan Club arrive onstage, we see a recognisable group dynamic at work amongst the teenage girls. The pecking order shifts rapidly as the group debate about whether to admit Jess to their number or not, switching sides each time one member asserts themselves.

The Band work as a parody not just of One Direction, but of every identikit boy band that has existed since the 90s. The young male cast do an excellent job of portraying teen idols, responding to TV interview questions with feigned humility and miming to music with cheesy grins. Their only song, a brilliant imitation of catchy, generic hit singles, is repeated enough throughout the piece to ensure that I leave the theatre with its opening lines in my head. Teenage behaviour is also targeted – when one girl meets a member of The Band and can’t get her phone to capture the moment on camera, she complains bitterly that if she can’t share it online, it might as well not be happening.

This production is simply but effectively staged. A bright pink collage of magazine covers and bandposters covers the stage – the only pieces of set are white cubes, which function as seats and later as podiums, a table and a metal barrier. When The Band perform, they cover all the levels of the studiostage, dancing up the aisles and interacting with the audience. Although the cast is only ten strong, lighting and sound create the illusion of screaming concert crowds.

Amongst all the skilfully delivered comedy however, there is a serious message being communicated. When The Fan Club finally come face to face with their idols and discover the disappointing truth – that The Band would rather sit on the floor sharing a curry than have wild dressing room parties – they not only renounce their status as fans, but ensure by destroying The Band that other girls won’t make the same mistake. The final scene sees the former Fan Club confronting their problems, looking to their own futures as astronauts or TV presenters, and above all becoming friends on their own terms.

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