Hosted by Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Faith Drama Productions  TBB Reviews 2016 Theatre Madness Festival

theatre_madnessHosted by TBB Favourite Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Faith Drama Productions (FDP) for the 3rd time, the 2016 Theatre Madness Festival crowned its winner at Stratford Circus 1 on September 10th! There was definitely a party atmosphere, as the festival celebrations were combined with Faith Drama’s 10th Anniversary, and one of the finalist’s birthday. There was LOTS of cake!  The challenge officially began on Friday August 5th, when finalists Kerri McLean, Isaac Tomiczek, Birthday Girl Megan Fellows and Darrel Draper arrived at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre to meet their 5-person cast for the first time. They were then provided with the secret word, decided by FDP, that would inspire their 10 minute play, and they were sent away to write it. Bank Holiday Monday (August 29th) signalled the beginning of the directing portion of the challenge. That was the day each writer-director began rehearsing the cast, culminating in performance night over the weekend! See our previous post for finalists’ background summaries here.

On collecting your admission ticket at the box office, you were provided with a rather large marble, which would be used to vote for the play you liked best during the interval. The play with the most marbles would be awarded the audience prize. A judging panel of 3 (Ikumelo, FDP dramaturg John Russell Gordon and previous winner Mollie Lambert of Shrink Theatre Co.), would then deliberate not just on the night’s performance, but on the finalist’s journey also, to award the Festival Prize.

Festival MC, actor and consummate comedian David Ajao kicked off proceedings, explaining what to expect, including the fact that each play would be separated by a documentary film about FDP shot by FDP member and film maker Alexia Amissah-Larbi. It was entertaining enough to have been a bona fide monologue but for the fact that he really was just explaining what we could expect! He has done Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet/ Box Clever Theatre tour and Merchant of Venice/ RSC; other theatre – Tap Baby Tap/ Oval House; TV – the chilling docudrama Dreams of a Life (2011); and film – Cockneys vs Zombies (2012).

The incredibly creative Ikumelo took to the stage next and treated us to a fantastic spoken word performance of her poem The Hustle. It gave voice to the frustrations that most actors feel about work, about not working and, of course, the rent. The audience loved it. So now, fully warmed up, and after seeing the first instalment of Larbi’s film, the first of the plays commenced.

Holnap House by Megan Fellows (grad. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) was inspired by her secret word ‘TOMORROW’. It is a stark committee drama set in the council-owned tower block, Holnap House, as the last 5 residents meet to discuss last ditch ideas for preventing the scheduled demolition of the entire estate in just 2 months – a Caribbean woman (Veronica Beatrice Lewis) and her grandson (Luke Wilson), the committee chair (Mark Ota), a pregnant single mother (Charlotte Chinn) and the dissenting young white guy (William Frazer).
Fellows interestingly went for a pessimistic view with a hint of bitter sweetness towards the end. It felt very much like a vignette rather than a story, since any resolution that was revealed was already in place before the play began, and I’m not sure anything particularly new was exposed to us. Still, there were some astute observations made, and some nice symbolism utilising a giant on-set Jenga-looking construct.

Second, The Lost and Found by Darrel Draper (NoHatStand Theatre Co.) was inspired by the secret word ‘PARTY’. Set in a church hall, a priest (Wilson) and heavily pregnant supervisor (Chinn) organise a young group of offenders (Lewis, Ota and Frazer) tidying up after a children’s birthday party. This was, by far, the most light-hearted work, scoring the most laughs from the audience, and allowing Frazer, in particular, to begin to stand out as a versatile talent. The kids find a forgotten teddy bear and they begin to reminisce, gaining some self-awareness along the way. The supervisor is really grumpy and pretty jaded, and the priest is moved to remind her about the power of choices. Then, when her Braxton-Hicks contractions threaten more of a crisis, the actions of the kids, and maybe the Father’s words, compels the supervisor to show a little faith.
This was an unexpected spin on the secret word and I enjoyed it overall, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen much of it before with E4’s Misfits (2009-13)…

Reality Check by Kerri McLean (Rolemop Arts production company) was presented third and was inspired by the secret word ‘BLACK’. Inexperienced in writing for stage, seasoned and award-winning director McLean chose to combine two of the most important cultural conversations had by the African Diaspora, particularly in the USA and UK – Black Lives Matter and mental illness in young black men. She led us down the BLM road with a young man (Wilson) who arrives at his cousin’s flat, soon after she (Lewis) and her flatmate (Frazer) wake up after the night before. He is on the run from the police because of his activities in the BLM movement, which he joined after the death of his twin in police custody the year before. As his cousin becomes more concerned (her mother might miss her flight because of the protests down at Heathrow), he begins to have haunting daydreams, which cause his cousin even more concern. McLean then flips into mental health issue when, having mentioned that his twin had suffered psychiatric problems, a community psychiatric nurse (CPN, Chinn) and a policeman (Ota) arrive to section the young man and must overpower him to restrain him… For me, the narrative was perhaps a little heavy handed in combining the two in this way, especially in such a limited time.

The last play was Bapatzia by Isaac Tomiczek (grad. Children’s Film Unit), inspired by the secret word ‘FAITH’. Utilising multiple media, Baptazia starts with a pre-recorded montage of the world and how society-at-large, having placed its faith in various false institutions, had built them up, only to then tear them down, and was currently lost looking for the next ‘saviour’. It is a high energy, highly original presentation with a slightly absurdist inclination – very ambitious for the theatre debut of an artist prolifically rooted in film! With two champions who must face three music and dance-related challenges set by the wise Lyrics (Wilson), Tunes (Ota) and Moves (Chinn), the faith of the passionate challenger who doesn’t think she is worthy (Lewis) goes up against one with a clear sense of entitlement (Frazer), with some engaging philosophising along the way and some decent comedy.

Being incredibly topical it was no surprise when Kerri McLean and Reality Check won. She earned not only got the Judge’s votes – a close call between McLean and Fellows, but the audience’s too – a close call between the last two plays! She was presented with two beautiful glass crystal trophies, and also gets the top prize of £2,000 and the support to create a full-length play for Faith Drama’s 2017/18 season! McLean was clearly delighted and utterly speechless each time her name was called. She humbly thanked us all.

To wrap things up, the East London Hip Hop dance troupe ‘The Rebirth Network’ then performed what can only be described as a remarkably socially conscious routine which ended the night on a high!

As Festival director and artistic director for FDP Gbemi Ikumelo is a hard-working artist. She writes, acts, directs, produces… and she does it all with such heart, it is easy to admire her, and there was a real warmth in Stratford on Saturday night. She explained that whilst the theatre establishment might prefer creatives to either write or direct, under her stewardship this year, they specifically wanted to allow the finalists the exceptional opportunity to do both and gain some valuable insights along the way. The Theatre Madness Festival really challenged these four finalists to produce engaging, original work under quite pressured, unique circumstances. But, it certainly gave each of them an invaluable experience from which they admitted they learned lots.
I, along with the entire audience, felt they did a great job

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Words by @DescantDeb