It was not without some feeling of curiosity that I arrived at the drama studio of Methodist College Belfast last night, revisiting the haunts of my six-months-younger self. How would an evening of sixth form original drama compare after a term of watching the best (and worst) the Oxford stage had to offer? Two hours and three plays later, I still wasn’t sure how to answer my own question.
Devised drama must be the most challenging element of the A Level course. Any subject, any style and off you go – it’s compulsory Cuppers without any freedom in team formation or even an (official) after-party. Memories of my class’s efforts, and especially the excruciating opening dance sequence, came flooding back as I flicked through the programmes. No wonder these students’ choice of settings revolved around war-zones, prisons and mental institutions, I decided – it just sounded like an average day in an A Level drama class.
The first play of the night, Dear Sarah, dealt with the effects of an ill-fated World War II romance. The plot’s reliance on one major coincidence did not mar its enjoyability: this was a story which, while slightly predictable, had human interest and a unity of impression, unusual in a collaborative piece. Particularly successful moments included the opening ‘dance hall’ sequence and the scene between Piotrek Adamski (played by August Mazurek) and his father (Mark Mullan). If not bound by time constraints, the character of Sarah Nelson (Elizabeth Crooks) could have been developed further by more frequent changes between past and present, but the piece was slick, well-paced and executed with confidence.
‘A Level devised drama is compulsory Cuppers without any freedom in team formation or an after-party.’
This was followed by The Brothers’ Dilemma – a play about two brothers who decide to rob a bank. In contrast to the previous play, where plot (largely due to time and cast numbers) had to take precedence over characterisation, the protagonists (in particular Ryan Donaldson’s Dan and Rory Tinman’s Jack) had depth and psychological interest. Yet It was the story which didn’t quite match up. There were just too many elements to cram into a short piece; paternal abandonment, romantic jealousy, depression, delusion, death, betrayal and suicide all featured in quick succession, themes to which a five act tragedy might struggle to do justice. The group’s inventive incorporation of film clips, music and pre-recorded speeches, however, was very impressive, and they were used especially poignantly at the end of the piece.
Over the Rainbow – our last theatrical instalment for the evening – saw stock topics for A Level work (murder, madness, Vietnam) rolled out again, but with a refreshingly original twist. It’s 1969 and Dorothy (Aisling Esmonde) isn’t in Kansas anymore, but Fairview Mental Institution, surrounded by patients who, while telling their stories, start playing out the roles of the scarecrow, tinman and lion in carefully incorporated dialogue from the film. The effect was a warped and disturbing fairytale and the group displayed theatrical know-how in not overplaying the Oz elements. Morgan MacIntyre shone as ‘brainless’ Alice and the ‘exercise’ scene gave all the actors a chance to explore their characters’ phys
icality (an opportunity exploited particularly by Thomas Olver as Ryan).
Yet leaving school to return to the real world of reading lists and Cherwell deadlines, my overall impression was not of the individual plays’ strengths and weaknesses but of the admiration I had for their successful crea
tion as pieces of drama at all. The class’s first forays into collaborative drama prove two things for certain – that they are well-armed with the tools of drama and that, whichever universities they end up at (Oxford or elsewhere), they won’t remain too far from a student stage.