Innovative ‘gig theatre’ at Northampton’s Picturedrome mixes live music and an unfolding story as young people make choices about their future
Here’s the set up – it’s 2006, and teenagers Alex, Max and Owen have a band, but they’re not getting the break they crave and are playing gigs around their home town of Northampton, yearning to be discovered.
Enter Leo, casually rolled in on a stack of speakers crooning his self-penned tunes with the confidence/arrogance that Alex lacks. Before long, Leo’s in the band, sniffing around Alex’s friend Rachel, calling the shots and causing all sorts of mischief, while Alex has to decide where his loyalties lie. Drawn to the allure of a male friendship akin to the early days of The Libertines founders Pete Docherty and Carl Barat, Alex follows Leo hoping for that big musical break. An Anthem for Doomed Youth indeed…
As a member of the audience at this innovative show you’re in the thick of it, as the staging moves around you, from conversations between the characters at the bar, in a rehearsal room, on a balcony and on stage. Sets move and roll around you, and you can follow the action (there’s no seating, like a gig you’re on your feet and can even go and get a drink at the bar). To see the Picturedrome used this way was a joy, as it’s a great performance space. Plus, anyone older than the average cast member will recognise the names of music venues past and present around the county, for a quick stab of nostalgia. (RIP the Soundhaus, and Auntie Ruth’s…)
The main cast are professional actors and musicians – and they are really very good. Charles Sloboda-Bolton as Alex is entirely believable, and an excellent musician. The subject of his unrequited love, Rachel, is played with expert timing by Roberta Carraro, whose naturalistic portrayal sees some epic put-downs of the narcissistic Leo, who in turn is played with swaggering, arrogant glee by Matt Leaman. You can’t take your eyes off the brilliant drummer Max (Olivia Bennett), “bored of the Meg White comparisons” while Robert Elliott fumes away as Alex’s old friend and guitar sidekick Owen, furious, suspicious and jealous of Leo.
The leads are supported by an ensemble of 14-25 year-olds from Royal & Derngate’s young actors scheme, showing that Covid lockdowns haven’t stopped the flow of bright young talent coming up through the ranks.
Writer and director Tristan Jackson-Pate has created a really engaging piece of theatre here with co-producers Royal & Derngate and Cherwell Theatre Company.
It’s not without its issues – mostly due to sound problems that made it quite difficult to hear some of the dialogue, especially with the ensemble speaking in unison, and it took a good ten minutes in to work out what was going on and who was who. This improved in the second half (there’s an interval) when a mic was passed around the ensemble and lines delivered solo. It may have been worth having the ensemble as visible/invisible narrators next to the main characters rather than a chanting mob.
I think there was an aim to have the audience physically follow the actors around a little more, but that didn’t happen except when people couldn’t hear and shuffled forward a back – to be honest I was one of the lucky few to bag a bar stool. But at one point, during a blazing row between characters, you could see everyone utterly glued to the action regardless of where they were standing, such was the pull of the performers. And you could even have a dance when the songs were played, live.
The music is really excellent – they really are a proper band playing proper songs and you feel huge admiration for the talent on show. As you’d expect from a story about teen friendship, there’s a liberal amount of swearing, so not one for very young kids. If you were in a band in Northampton, I’m sure you’ll feel the love for live performance that resonates.
Tickets are still available for tonight (Friday August 19), two shows on Saturday and a final show on Sunday, which you can get via the R&D box office or by calling 01604 624811, with concessions from £11.
It’s a trip to the theatre and a gig rolled into one, (and you could even have a pint before and after, as the Picturedrome is open as usual at the front) so a decent night out all round. More of this please.