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Fen

Caryl Churchill
Northumbria Live Academy
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2005)

Publicity image for Fen

The Northumbria Live Academy is a year-long post graduate course in theatre and performance practice - the only one of its kind in the country. It is a partnership project which bridges the gap between academic study and the professional world of theatre. Students work with both academic staff from the university and professional theatre-makers at Live.

Fen is a demanding piece: the cast of six play twenty parts between them (in this production one of the men even has to play a young girl and a woman), the slow Norfolk accent imposes vocal limitations, and to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Fenlands is not easy. In addition, the play is made up of short scenes - some as short as half a dozen speeches - and, although there is one obvious plot line, the focus is constantly shifting to what can seem to be peripheral events.

All in all, a real challenge for any actor - and director. This is director Sunila Galappatti's first production: her background is mainly dramaturgy although she was assistant director to David Farr on the Bristol Old Vic's Paradise Lost last year.

So how did these comparatively inexperienced actors and director cope?

Quite well, really. The differentiation between characters was generally good, and if the others didn't use body language quite as effectively as Theresa Chilton (playing Angela, Deb, Miss Cade and Mavis - a wide range of ages and types), in their defence it has to be said that perhaps their characters didn't give them as much to play with in terms of difference.

The oppressive Fenland atmosphere was well created and director and cast found some humour to lighten the darkness. The song of the three young girls as they reveal what they would like to be when they grow up illustrates their situation perfectly: it is amusing, naïve and, with its constant refrain that they will never leave the village, a bleak commentary on the lives which await them. Humour there may be, but it's never far from tragedy.

Churchill, of course, is celebrated as a feminist writer but hers is not a preachy feminism, nor is it a man-hating one, for the men in Fen are just as trapped as the women, even the landowner Mr Tewson (Richard Whitbread). Nor are the women all good: Theresa Chilton's Angela's systematic abuse of her step-daughter to bolster her own self-esteem is horrifying. Fen is not about men oppressing women but about a system (and a place) which grinds everybody down.

Earlier I mentioned the play's structure as providing a major problem for director and cast: it makes a gradual increase in tension difficult. Pace and dynamics have to be absolutely spot-on so that, when the dreadful climax of the relationship of Val (nicely played by Christina Dawson) and Frank (slightly underplayed by Alex Kinsey) occurs, we have to feel horrifed not only by its violence but also by its inevitability. The violence horror was there but not the inevitability. There was not the build-up which would have created it: the pace and intensity were too much the same throughout.

That said, it was a good hour and a quarter. The cast and director show great promise and all kudos to Live and Northumbria University for creating the opportunity for actors at the start of their careers to tackle something as demanding and worthwhile as Fen in such a totally professional way.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan