See me, hear me, peel me

August 29, 1997

Chris Johnston compares the success of two very different student theatre groups at the Edinburgh Fringe

There are 94 student companies performing at the 51st Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which ends tomorrow. What a good idea, I thought, to compare the experiences of two student drama groups, one well respected, performing a new work, the other relatively unknown, tackling an old favourite. I could chronicle how the former had better audiences and was terribly successful, while the latter plodded away to a handful of punters each day. But assumptions can be dangerous - sometimes things just do not work out the way you expect them to.

My selection for the unknown category was the Absolute Banana Theatre Company, made up mostly of Birmingham University drama society members. They performed Oscar Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest in one of the festival's more unlikely venues, Marco's - a family leisure centre in Edinburgh's slightly seedy West End.

Marcos is a good 20-minute walk from the festival's focal point, the Royal Mile - practically on the moon in Fringe terms. The show also has a 1.30pm time slot and is performed in an almost airless room next to the centre's gymnasium.

Yet, despite all its disadvantages, the Bananas have been packing the punters in. The performance I attended had more audience members than seats (the capacity is 75). Director Marco Liviero's belief that the play would be a good commercial choice, with the film about the infamous playwright soon to be released, seemed vindicated.

As the company (whose name was chosen to ensure a prominent position in the alphabetical festival programme) receives no funding from the university, Liviero, who recently completed a PhD and now teaches drama at the university, and producer Peter Monks took out bank loans to finance the Pounds 2,000 production. "We thought it would be a risk worth taking, and it has proven to be so," says Liviero.

Reviews vary hugely. The festival magazine ThreeWeeks tells its readers not to be put off simply because they know the plot. "No slip-ups for these Bananas," it says, before awarding five stars. In sharp contrast is the one star ("frightfully awful", "only go if you're paid" and so on) in the more respected Scotsman newspaper. "This is quite the worst production of what is perhaps the greatest comedy in the language," was its critic's assessment.

By contrast, the Cambridge Mummers has few rivals as far as student drama companies go. It was formed in the early 1900s and is associated with names such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie,Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson. But the decision to produce The Talking Cure, a dark psychological thriller, is an attempt to step out of the shadow of Fry and Laurie et al. Written by first-year philosophy student Matthew Kimpton, the play won this year's Cambridge student drama festival.

Director Paul Gilbert, who wants to become a professional director, says: "Each year the Mummers come up with something that will hopefully change people's preconceptions about what Cambridge drama is. We're trying to drag Cambridge into the 1990s and leave the Shakespeare behind."

When the ghosts of Thompson and Fry are finally exorcised from Cambridge, Kimpton and Gilbert may be there to take their places. The Scotsman concludes that The Talking Cure "showcases a writer and director with great potential". Alex Michaelides and David Whitehead, who also perform in the play, are other names to note. For all the baggage that comes with it, Gilbert admits that being the Mummers can have its advantages, particularly when searching for a venue. The company secured a prime 8.15pm slot in Edinburgh University's well-located Bedlam Theatre. But even such a well-financed production needs at least paying audience members each night to break even - no easy task during an 18-night run.

If the measure of success is the number of punters, then the Absolute Banana company wins the contest. Why? Both groups had a gimmick while handing out flyers (equally slickly designed): the Mummers painted their faces blue and covered their mouths with zippers, the Absolute Bananas handed out, well, free bananas.

Maybe the extra 50p charged by Cambridge (Pounds 5 versus Pounds 5.50) made a difference. Sadly, the real reason is probably that many festival goers prefer to spend their money on a known quantity such as Wilde, rather than take their chances on an amateur's new work. Funny, that: I thought the purpose of the festival was to showcase unknown writers.

STARS OF THE FUTURE?

Not many playwrights would admit to a journalist that they "don't really know much about the theatre", but John Donnelly is one. He says (A Short Play About) Sex and Death was the result of a desire to write something his friends would like to see. Consequently, its themes are football, flatmates and interpersonal tension. "So much of the play are my petty personal grievances against people claiming to be something they're not," Donnelly admits. The dark humour helps to transcend its laddish nature and helped it win the best new play award at this year's National Student Drama Festival. While some critics have wrinkled their noses at the 21-year-old Leeds University English student's style, the show has been well patronised by Fringe festivalgoers.

Another student writer whose work has impressed widely at this year's Fringe is Terry Hughes. His play, Life's a Gatecrash, which won this year's Manchester student playwriting competition and has been awarded a coveted Scotsman Fringe First award, examines the consequences for a couple of committing a hit-and-run. They find their relationship and lives torn apart when a crazed gunman, who witnessed the incident, terrorises them before dumping the injured pedestrian in their flat and fleeing. A radio version of the play will be developed for BBC Radio 4.

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