Each term, there are a number of opportunities for University of Essex students to put on a production of their choice by way of a Studio Slot at the on-campus theatre. Coordinated by the Lakeside Theatre, Studio Slots present students with a challenge; the performance space is intimate, the cast size must be minimal and the running time is limited to an hour. Earlier this term saw the staging of Joe Orton’s Funeral Games (directed by Rio Topley and Georgie Kirk), which proved to be a literal sell-out. Last night was the turn of second-year student Louisa Futcher, making her directing debut with her play of choice being Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.
Far from a straight-forward watch, Far Away depicts a sort of dystopia; a surreal world in which underlying fear and paranoia is the norm.
At 2am in the heart of the countryside, a young girl Joan (Lucy Ventham) is woken by the sounds of uncontrollable screaming. She is adamant that she has seen something horrific, something bloody; her feet are stained red. Her somewhat subdued Aunt Harper (Nicole Gavin) goes to great lengths to try convince her niece that everything is fine. But as Joan’s story develops and the details become increasingly macabre, we begin to realise that Harper’s defence lacks all plausibility.
The action abruptly cuts to what appears to be a factory, in which Joan (now several years older, played by Louisa Whitford) works with fellow employee Todd (Jack Bullions) crafting hats for a so-called ‘parade’. With this segment, Far Away’s ambiguity is taken to new heights; we don’t know who the hats are for or what purpose they serve. Yet, with the screening of a procession, each member adorning one of the hand-made garments, we come somewhat closer to learning the dark, grisly truth.
Far Away featured some beautiful moments of acting, perhaps those most poignant being the duologues between Todd and older Joan. Their interaction was effortless and overwhelmingly authentic despite the highly surreal nature of the play. In her portrayal of young Joan, Lucy Ventham perfectly captured a child both innocent and dangerously inquisitive; she isn’t willing to dismiss what she had seen, harbouring a common childlike persistence both irritable and admirable. Nicole Gavin’s Aunt figure is perhaps the most interesting figure of Far Away, in that the extent of her involvement is left entirely down for us to decide. However, her ability to fabricate quite so effortlessly is perhaps the best indication of where the character’s morals lie.
The next Lakeside Studio Slot will be Above Me, (21-22nd November ) written and directed by Paige Blastock, followed by Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, (28th-29th November) directed by Adi Oshoba.
What do you think of The Lakeside Theatre’s Studio Slot system? Does your university offer a similar platform for students to direct and act in plays of their choice? Perhaps you were at last night’s performance. If so, what did you think? We’d love to know your thoughts on these questions and you can share them with us on Instagram (@unilovers.co.uk).