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Greater London
posted/updated: 09 Sep 2011 -
Adapted by David Eldridge from the film by Thomas Vinterberg
society/company: Teddington Theatre Club (directory)
performance date: 02 Mar 2008
venue: Hampton Hill Theatre, 90 High Street, Hampton Hill, Hampton TW12 1NZ
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

Like Teddington Theatre Club's tenacious Director, Sally Halsey, I too, was lucky enough to witness David Eldridge's sublime, and disturbing, Festen (adapted from Thomas Vinterberg's award-winning film) at the Lyric in 2004; a special night of gripping and creative West End theatre that doesn't come around every day. Halsey was so moved by the piece that she consequently set out on a marathon quest to not only track down, but to convince Producer, Marla Rubin, to allow her the amateur rights to produce the work at The Hampton Hill Playhouse. Rubin, understandably, took some convincing that an amateur society would have the strength in depth as well as the all-round acting skill to do the play justice. However, Halsey obviously presented her case well and the result was the UK's premire by an amateur theatre company.
And what of our West End Producer's concerns? She needn't have worried. To their credit, TTC pulled off the challenge superbly, immersing its packed audience into a shocking world where the worst kind of revelations brazenly tear into the heart of the family unit. Every bit a tragedy, Festen demonstrates how not only do deep and dark secrets never stay hidden, but the longer they remain locked away, the further reaching the consequences of their appearance will inevitably be.

There were a couple of early scenes that could have been a little more effective but, as a production, the impact of this powerful piece on its audience was never in doubt and TTC should be extremely proud of their handling of the evening's drama.

Set in Denmark in an affluent family home, Helge (Helga) is celebrating his 60th Birthday with his wife and his three grown-up visiting children, family and friends. The plot revolves around Helge's elder son, Christian - brilliantly played by David Brickwood - whose twin sister Linda has recently committed suicide. During the dinner-party Christian reads a specially prepared speech and proceeds to disclose how he and Linda, as small children, were repeatedly raped by their father! The claim - that also points to Helge's actions as being the reason behind Linda's death - incredibly seems to fall on deaf ears until the climax of the play when Helene, the surviving daughter, reads out a recently discovered suicide letter left by Linda confirming Christian's accusations. Brickwood was well-cast as Christian and controlled his performance wonderfully. His delivery of Christian's pivotal 'rape speech' was done with a fine mix of calculated anger, revenge and grief for the lost twin. You naturally felt for him when it looked as if his plan to expose his father could fold when initially nobody took him seriously. A powerful performance from a talented actor.

Any members of the audience that unwittingly nestled into their seats all set for a nice and relaxing evening of theatre were given a sample of the hard-hitting night of drama to come as early as the first minute (long before the emergence of any dark secrets) as we were slapped and shaken awake by an opening scene where the f-word stole centre stage. A stark and deliberate opening scene designed to grab our attention (a technique also employed directly after the interval) as Helge's uninvited other son, Michael, gatecrashes the proceedings prior to the celebrations. Michael, played by Ashley Munson, is the loose cannon of the family and is in disgrace after missing Linda's funeral. Munson produced a fine character in Michael; always unpredictable, as was demonstrated at the outset of Act Two when Helene's black boyfriend, Gbatokai, turns up (played by Dennis Ducane) only for Michael to direct a truly shocking tirade of racial abuse toward him which brought more than just a few gasps from the audience.

Now I dont really like doing this bit with a production of such a high standard, but let's get the negative section out of the way now. It would be wrong to brush over the parts that could have worked better when there is also so much praise to be heaped on this fine production... Unfortunately, the first section of the play, in performance, was the weakest, which was a shame. It looked like the opening must have taken the actors by surprise just as much as the audience as cues were slow and the action looked a little uncomfortable. Throughout these important first scenes, we meet the children, understand their relationships and how the house is run (two servants and a chef, no less). Christian has a past with the family's maid, Pia, played by Angela Francis. Michael has brought his wife (and their daughter), Mette, played by Kate Munson, with whom he is always either fighting or having sex with. The boys surviving sister, Helene, played by Amanda-Jade Tyler is awaiting the arrival of her latest boyfriend.

One of the highlights of Act One is a stylish bedroom scene where we see the three siblings acting out three separate scenes simultaneously around one double-bed: Christian is deep in thought, and oblivious to Pia's attempted seduction (unlike half the audience!) as she takes a bath in his room; Michael and Mette are, of course, rowing only to make up and have rampant sex on the bed; Helene cannot relax in Linda's old bedroom and chances across clues to a soon-to-be-discovered suicide note. This three-way scene needs high energy with fast co-ordinated cues with the action swiftly moving between the protagonists as we understand how the different members of the family are dealing with their circumstances. It ought to be funny, touching and intriguing but instead became stilted although everyone was waiting for someone else to make the next move. Ironically, a farce-like energy was probably needed to make the scene more effective. However, Amanda-Jade Tylers abundant supply of sensuality and a degree of sexual tension albeit the fastest 'shag' in theatre history between Michael and Mette (real-life married couple Ashley and Kate Munson) kept the audience's attention sufficiently.

Charles A. Halford played Helge; a tough, challenging role for any actor. To play these parts, you have to possess a natural on-stage presence. It's Miller's Willy Loman or Joe Keller, you need to be able to own the stage, and Halford did this. Helge's silent, controlled terror was brilliantly played out as he quickly realises Christian is about to reveal all with his "When daddy takes a bath" story. As with the role of Christian, Halford's successful portrayal of Helge was paramount to the success of this production. Helge refuses to accept the allegations, even when - in a powerful scene - left alone with Christian. A predictable denial that finally collapses towards the emotional climax of the play with Helge's words: "It's all you were good for" after the revealing suicide note has been read. Helge, now a finished man even loses the support of his dutiful wife, Else, played by Mandy Stenhouse. Else knew of the awful abuse her young children were suffering at the hands of their father but stood by her husband over the years keeping her silence. A painfully real reflection on society.

The staging was perfectly stylish and I loved the way we watched the staff preparing the long table for the evening's 'last supper' style celebration. Just as amazing was an incredible seven-minute scene where we were left watching the ensemble silently eating their dinner accompanied only by the sound of cutlery on plates. You could cut the tension with one of those dinner knives; a glorious scene using and demonstrating the power of silent acting with each actor playing their respective characters wonderfully; squirming in discomfort after Christian has just dealt his hammer-blow accusation to his father.

The three members of staff were very nicely played and were always believable. This production required a high standard all round and Marc Batten (butler), Angela Francis (maid) and Dave Dadwell (chef) are to be congratulated. Amanda-Jade Tyler had a difficult role with Helene, but played the part very well. She did a fine job in conveying Helene's strong spirit as she did with her support for her grieving brother, Christian. Other notable performances came from Chris Hurles as Helge's brother, Poul, and Jim Tickle as the Grandfather. Both roles, played with subtlety and experience, provided us with lighter moments, most often in the darkest parts of the play; a further reminder of the highest standard of writing on show. Its impossible to mention absolutely everyone in a review but the ensemble nature of Festen means congratulations must go to all of Sally Halseys cast and crew for a memorable night by the Thames in Hampton Hill. Well done to all.
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