I avoid front row seats. As an actor, I have looked into the audience to see encouraging smiles and familiar faces, to find my friend fast asleep. I too am prone to drifting off, only to wake with a start and gasp. So, I was a little apprehensive taking my front row seat for Sherman Cymru’s youth theatres production of HOOD.
I needn’t have worried.
As part of National Theatre Connections, Katherine Chandler’s new play will be performed around the UK by a multitude of youth theatre companies, with Sherman’s Group 3 kicking it off.
It is the story of an impoverished, dysfunctional family. The mother has run off with another man; the father, devastated, never leaves his armchair but escapes reality through drink, lies, and The Waterboys. The five teenage children are left to fend for themselves as Hood, the eldest, tries to keep them together and retain a modicum of normality.
Apparently forty minutes long was the specification for this piece. However, it sailed past that and dropped anchor beyond an hour. Things are twice as good, half as long, and the text would benefit from further editing.
Certain repeated jokes wore thin quickly: for example, that the mother ran off with a “vegetarian”, and that this should be so ridiculous was funny the first, perhaps even the second time, but there it could have ended. Although that he is later caught licking bacon, wonderful!
Some of Katherine Chandler’s strongest writing was the quickest: when Naz asks John if he’s travelled, he replies “I’ve been to Anglesey”; and I was equally interested in the silent Muz, played by the engaging Phoebe Ward.
The stark and striking set, designed by Bethany Seddon, consisted of a few items of furniture, scrubbed blackboard walls and two doors on either side. Above, a small chorus of young hoodies open and close the play from the balcony.
This bare set is brought to life with strong lighting design by Ace McCarron and Michael Yellop, as the cast invade, covering the floor with litter and the walls with writing which preludes the script to come. Surprisingly hypnotic, there is something very exciting about watching others write on such a scale. Later, water is thrown against this chalky canvas, creating a great splash effect, before it’s all scrubbed clean.
Director Phillip Mackenzie and Sound Designer Sam Jones have chosen a strong soundtrack that really affects the mood and quality of the action onstage. Soft, resonant Hang is contrasted with the heavier, deeper sounds of Burial. Much of the music is familiar to me having previously worked with Phil, but there is good reason he returns to it – I couldn’t help but seat-dance a little.
As a director, he is known for his use of the ensemble in his physical theatre. I have been a part of this ensemble, and so cannot claim to be wholly unbiased, but it is my first time in the audience at one of his productions.
From the start there is a tangible physical charge, the chorus engaging in a restrained yet bold series of gestures and shapes.
The peak for me came at the height of a crescendo, where amidst all the noise Muz, mute until now, finally breaks down and screams, silently at first. A genuine, tingly-all-over-shiver-down-spine moment.
Once the worst of the teenagers’ fears – that they could be taken into care – are over, to avoid what otherwise might be too happy an ending, the characters dance elatedly before falling down in a collective fit of spasms. Never has a collective fit of spasms made for an assuredly happy ending.
Aside from these more intricate moments, Phil hands the responsibility and ownership of the text over to the young cast.
Aged 16-17, these actors form a strong company and are an asset to the Sherman. The talent of all of the creative’s involved in this production meant that not once was I conscious I was watching a youth theatre piece rather a true ensemble piece of contemporary theatre at Sherman Cymru.
I feel a special mention should be made of Mali O’Donnell for her confident, considered performance as John.
For anyone interested in joining this youth theatre, more information can be found here http://www.shermancymru.co.uk/youth-theatre/
All photograph by Nick Allsop