Review: Butterflies Are Free, SUSU Theatre Group

11
60%
60
Good

The show is worth seeing for Ellie and Joanna, and to see how well a piece of realist drama can be made to fit in an unconventional space.

Butterflies Are Free follows Don Baker (Liam Dyer), a blind man with a penchant for playing the guitar, as he prepares for a visit by his overbearing mother, Mrs Baker (Ellie Fowler). Lo and behold it doesn’t quite go to plan and a quick fling with ex-hippy next door, Jill “my vagina can fix all your problems” Tanner (Joanna Mills) sets up some necessary confrontation which is resolved in a predictable but poignant manner.

The show was an example of realism done right, oddly juxtaposed to the fact the space had an ‘attic theatre’ feel that would have perhaps lent itself to a more minimal, styled set. That said, the production team successfully gave the cast a fully decked-out bedsit complete with a tape recorder that played music, sandwiches that were edible, and cigarettes (well – e-cigs but unfortunately nothing can be done about the University’s strict no-smoking policy). The result gave the audience that magical, butterflies in your stomach (ey?) feeling, of stepping into a place where theatre is going to happen, and after two minutes we were fully immersed in a 60s New York bedsit.

Director Anna Williams clearly has an eye for detail and I was most impressed with the characterisation and blocking. All the movement was purposeful – the cast were never moving from one place to the other without reason, and the audience were allowed to watch arguments unfold without atypical pacing and erratic arm gestures. This was a mature and more refined theatre than I have previously seen from SUSU Theatre Group, and it freed the group to hone a different dramatic skill set.

The show was stolen by Fowler (only once before have I seen a student play age so aptly) and her precision and emotional connection to her character was so absolute it became hard to recognise her as Jan from SUSU Showstoppers’ Grease. Fowler is evidently a performer of skill and promise and the tension and terseness she brought to the show complemented the dry comedy perfectly.
Mills was equally as impressive: her American accent was delicate and honest and her ability to improvise to what I presume were unexpected happenstances demonstrates that the Meisner technique (as mentioned by Anna Williams in the preview) had been used to great effect. My only criticism is that I felt Mills could have used Jill Tanner’s sexuality more. The inevitable attraction towards Don Baker was only expressed vocally and a more physical primal portrayal might have reflected the ex-hippy’s past more accurately.

Dyer had obviously escaped his own head and what we saw was a realistic characterisation of Don Baker – he played blindness well, and in particular the relationship with his mother came across as damaging, sarky, and full of angst. Unfortunately there were many line slips and stutters, and his accent too often slipped to Irish which became starkly obvious in scenes with Fowler.

The play for me was irrevocably damaged by Jonny Clark’s portrayal of Ralph Austin; the character was an unrealistic grotesque which was made more apparent by the performances by the rest of the cast. Someone dropped the ball here and I can’t work out if it was the directors trying to jazz up the piece with a larger-than-life character or an actor who didn’t connect with the text. The accent was a gross parody of a southern American accent and the odd decision to put him in make-up made him look like a pale, crack-addled maniac with no business in this dry comedic drama other than to steal a coffee mug.

The entrance of Ralph marked a turning point from which the play could not recover: the jokes lost their dryness and at times it felt farcical, which is not what an expositional piece on how you shouldn’t treat the blind any differently needed (you can’t sleep with him because he is blind, you can’t break up with him because he is blind, you can’t mother him into the grave because he is blind).

All in all the show is worth seeing for Fowler and Mills, and to see how well a piece of realist drama can be made to fit in an unconventional space. Some weak actors, however, with mistakes that quickly added up and were never redeemed make the piece too clunky to be something I would tell my friends not to miss.

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A final year Mechanical Engineer, Jed as spent much of his time at University engaged with dramatics.

11 Comments

  1. avatar
    Nostalgic Hater on

    Is it me or have the edge reviews got unnecessarily bitchy recently? It feels like the people reviewing are saying “this show is terrible because I didn’t have a role in it” or “these actors are less experienced than me so I’m going to criticise every thing they do instead of encouraging development.” If the PA wants to keep people involved maybe this isn’t the way to go. I wonder what would have happened if someone had treated the reviewers’ early productions with the level of scorn they so eagerly dish out today…

  2. avatar
    Natalie Fordham on

    Writers are encouraged to express an honest opinion though i would encourage readers to ignore who the author is. This is not personal and is not about experience but merely about thinking and writing critically. Successful records and west end shows are critiqued the same way as PA shows, by honest opinion. You have to remember this is one person’s opinion, not the opinion of many. x

  3. avatar
    What is an opinion if not personal? on

    Yes, West end shows may be critiqued in this way, but this isn’t a West End show. They lack the budget, training and the actors are not paid to perform. It’s unlikely that any performers in this show even want to take a career that far (and even if they do it’s a little early to condemn them in such a way.) Judging a show from a university theatre group with the criteria of a West End Critic would be too harsh. If you want to judge a touring show with professional actors in this way, that would be fine, they’re paid to perform and the reviewer’s criteria should reflect that. But these are just university students trying to find a voice. Give them some confidence for crying out loud. The reviews from the daily echo don’t jump at the opportunity to criticise everything because they recognise the limitations of such a performance. Perhaps you should adjust the criteria? Or simply finding less harsh ways to phrase things than ‘his performance ruined the show for me?’ Have a look at the local reviews and you’ll see what I mean.

  4. avatar

    Commenting from my own opinion, as opposed to on behalf of The Edge: I’m not sure what exactly you’re nostalgic for. In my experience, reviews of the PA used to be almost consistently along the lines of “very good, they all knew their lines, four stars,” which was hardly worth getting a reviewer in for. Stars are only worth anything if they’re earned. I don’t think any of our writers ask too much of performances or productions; agreed, they should not be judged against professional shows, but PA shows have been of extremely high quality at times, so it is disappointing when the following shows miss the mark.

  5. avatar

    If actors want to improve, they would do well to take criticism and use it to improve in future. Whether you agree or not with the reviewer, people have a right to free speech and an opinion. Without critics, performing arts would be left to languish in mediocrity, so for goodness sake take it on the chin and move on!

  6. avatar

    Likewise, opinions are my own and are not reflective of either The Edge or TG in any way:

    I think this debate would benefit from being looked at from both angles rather than just the one – The Edge isn’t here to provide a publicity service to the Performing Arts societies, it’s here to do two things: to give its writers the experience of writing for a semi-professional level entertainment magazine, and to give its readers interesting things to read.

    If we sent our writers to review shows but told them they were only allowed to come back with a four-star review with no negative criticism whatsoever, what would they be benefiting from that?
    Likewise, if readers knew that any review they were going to read in The Edge would be censored, filtered and in no way an honest opinion, what’s the point in them reading it?

    (Plus I agree that if there was no negative criticism there’d be no benefits for TG either)

  7. avatar
    Yet another anon on

    Here, here! Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a review if all it said was “it were alright 4 stars.” No one would benefit

  8. avatar

    I agree absolutely with Buckingham. An Actor can benefit so much from being told their performance irrevocably damaged the play in this review. Well played mr Marshall. If only we could all be as talented and insightful as you.

  9. avatar

    If that was the only feedback the writer had given then I’d completely agree with your mild sarcasm, but the entire rest of that paragraph gives suggestions of where the portrayal of the character might have gone wrong, including exploring the possibility that it was the direction and not his acting ability that let him down – obviously I don’t know which of the suggested problems was actually the case, but I imagine the actor in question probably does, and will know what, if anything, he could work on in future if he feels that the writer’s comments have value and are worth taking on board. So I’m not really sure I see the problem here…

  10. avatar
    vforverite2- She/He's Back! on

    Of course you are right Bucks, old boy. No problem at all. As I implied in my previous comment, I particularly appreciated the delicate wording of the criticism I referred to. Whilst I admit that the actor himself was not necessarily the only one blamed here, I’m sure you know actors normally react particularly well when their character is singled out for damning criticism, like Stephen Fry, who went into hiding after one such situation. Criticism is necessary for improvement, I get that, and I also find it irritating to see 4/5 star reviews every time a show comes out, but I just love strongly worded criticism directed at an individual character by a writer who is clearly out to show us once again how beautifully articulate he is. Good to see we are on the same page. The Performing Arts establishment is never wrong… ever.

  11. avatar
    Anna Williams on

    Only just seen all of these comments, so a bit late to reply but feel I should regardless.
    As the director of the piece I believe this review was not only very fair, but also very helpful for all involved. The actor to whom the comment you have an issue with was directed had no problem with the comment in question when I discussed it with him.
    I hope this solves any worries you have.

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