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A very dramatic Summer holiday

LUCY MAZHARI checks out this year’s Stables Youth Theatre production of Gormenghast. Photos by PETER MOULD

Mervyn Peake’s classic Gormenghast trilogy is a great desolate cathedral of prose peopled with a peculiar cast on opposing sides of the ‘ritual of the blood’, a cross-generational feud for and against the shackles of tradition. John Constable’s stage adaptation lifts every significant moment of drama from the deep gothic anarchy of the novels.

The grand family of the moribund castle, the Groans, have sired a new heir, Titus the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. Meanwhile in the bowels of the hellish kitchen, Steerpike the ‘grey scrubber’, abused underling to Swelter the cook, has notions of rebellion stirring in his heart. In this closed, insular community, he finds each member’s secret schemes and manipulates the flawed family against itself in his own bid for power.

Staging this fabulous experience was the Stables Youth Theatre, selected from local schools at yearly auditions. Directed by Maureen Nelson and Niall Whitehead with assistance from Zoe Morgan, it was also a collaborative effort with Youth Theatre members taking on sets, costume, lighting and sound effects.

As soon as we arrived, players mingled with the audience, generating character and atmosphere. Flay the steward’s creaky knees, a recurring sound gag, trickled through the foyer. Swelter stomped about glaring, and Fuchsia, suitably insolent firstborn Groan-child, flounced in and out of the auditorium in her red gown, huffing at imagined slights. Meanwhile the black-clad chorus were obsessively chalking messages onto the stage, representing the clamouring voices seeping from the crumbling walls of the castle.

Physical theatre was a real feature, as this chorus turned themselves into various props and scenery to convey the geography of walls, steps and ramparts or the whistling, chirruping forest. Even the floodwater scene was convincing, as Titus and Steerpike jump, fighting, into a deluge of blue light and their slow motion and the dull, muted thuds of quieted exterior noise conveyed a real sense of buoyancy in dark, swirling water.

All the principals moved and held themselves superbly in character, with Jack Millar’s Steerpike uncannily evoking Peake’s own drawings as he veered from perkily funny to haunted and sinister. Catherine Jeffries’ Fuchsia was a defiant, volatile mixture of anger and innocence, worldliness and naiveté. Rhianna Ellis gave us the domineering Countess Gertrude, seemingly disinterested, but with an animal intelligence.

Charlie L’egg ‘s huge, cleaver-waving Swelter was thrillingly and frighteningly mobile. Anya Williams was expressively stiff as Barquentine, master of the meaningless all-important ritual. Emily Bates underplayed the dour, monosyllabic loyal servant Flay with finesse. And Alex Richardson-Price’s Selpuchrave Groan descended with a few gestures into madness, as he became the Death Owl and fled with Swelter’s entrails in his mouth.

With wit and fourth-wall asides, the humour skilfully skirted the darkness at the heart of the narrative. Some of the props had starring roles too: the newborn Titus was a plastic doll tossed across the stage, Countess Gertrude’s entourage of cats (masked rows of white fluffy fabric nailed to sticks), and Swelter’s sausage-link intestines slithering out majestically as he gasps his last.

Youth theatre often brings to mind dull, awkward delivery that leeches out all the drama. We saw none of that. Zoe Morgan’s expectation of “an achievement for their age group” was, she says, completely over-reached: “what they have actually accomplished would be amazing for any age group, for any company, with any level of experience, anywhere.”

For the Youth Theatre, the Stables’ normal 3-4 months’ work on a production was condensed into two intensive summer holiday weeks. If you’re up for that and want an experience that could set you up for a very dramatic life, get along to their auditions.


Photographs: left, Countess Gertrude with her cats. Right, top row Flay and Barquentine, bottom Gertrude and Sepulchrave Groan


Posted 15:32 Friday, Sep 25, 2009 In: Performance

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