Review: Theatre Group’s Festen at the Annex Theatre

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Brilliant

With a first act which creates an enigma of puzzles, and a well-timed interval that only creates further intrigue and mystery, not to mention a well-paced, measured and shocking second act culminating in an emotionally devastating and jarring climax, Festen maintains a gripping intensity from start to finish.

  • Festen
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When reviewing a play which is about a party, it seems apt to use the analogy that it is either going to be a great celebration, or a terrible disaster. While Festen‘s plot blends these two themes together in equal measure, I am delighted to say the overall production is firmly rooted in the former.

Under the stewardship of director Joshua Harris, assistant directors Olivia Krauze and Samena Brunning, not to mention producers Will Shere and Kimberly Pearson, Festen is an utter triumph from start to finish. The entire team do a great justice to the cult classic produced by Thomas Vinterburg, and adapted for stage by David Eldridge, while stamping their own unique qualities and statements onto the production.

The play explores the sixtieth birthday of Helge, the wealthy patriarch of a traditional Danish family, who celebrates by throwing a dinner party for the rest of his extended family. The timing is unfortunate, considering it occurs just months after the suicide of his daughter Linda. As the family sit down to dinner, devastating truths and shocking revelations come to light which threaten to unstable the precarious family dynamic which appears so rooted.

Although the Annex Theatre isn’t the most glamorous of venues, Harris has clearly given a lot of thought to the staging and setting for the play. The raised platform which usually acts as the stage has been transformed into a multi-purpose upstairs bedroom, which in turn acts as multiple rooms at once. While one pair of cast engages in some rather comical intercourse, another pair are reeling at the whimsical game of Hotter or Colder. The frontal area, which acts as the reception area, and later the grand dining room is perhaps somewhat obtrusive at times, but skillful stage and prop management ensures that we have better things to focus on than staff moving tables together, placing a table-cloth down and setting the table to create a grand banquet area. Unless you are trying to focus specifically on the movement of props, it blends seamlessly into the background and doesn’t really interrupt any action at any point.

The decisions on lighting work to great effect, illuminating key elements at the right time and ensure the light is never too bright to overwhelm, or to detract attention from the events on stage. The spotlighting on Christian in the First Act to isolate him from every other cast member is very powerful and raw. His decisions to fade to black at key moments in the play to reflect passing of time further creates a genuine edgy level of tension. It’s clear that the entire production team has thought very carefully regarding how the characters should behave, act, and speak. Dialect, tone and pitch are mediated to an absolute tee. Lines are delivered with fluency, clarity and emotion befitting of the situation and tone of the play. Awkward silences, deadpan jokes and definitive statements punctuate scenes adding genuine emotional gravitas to the event and all characters are believable.

The greatest triumph of the play comes in the fourteen-strong acting ensemble, who all perform their roles brilliantly. If young actors and actresses can be guilty of overacting, or ‘hamming it up’ at times, this criticism certainly cannot be lodged towards Festen. Although the entire cast is superb, particular kudos must be given to Charlie Randall, who performs the role of Helge with a constant state of antagonist dignity, as he manouevres and communicates the aged patriarch’s wishes and thoughts. His speeches in the second act are particularly powerful, and the genuine strain of anger in his voice carries a frightening and ashamed tone. Jordan Gardner’s Christian deserves a similar level of praise, as Gardner performs the mental breakdown of the young son with a level of desperation and insanity that fits perfectly with the shocking nature of the events which unfold.

Angharad Morgan’s final performance with Theatre Group as the tragically pained Else combines a sympathetic caring mother, with a genuinely vindictive and manipulative matriarch, who is desperate to retain the tradition and structure. Finally, Ian Bessant’s ‘egocentric maelstrom’ of aggressive puberty leaves the audience on edge, following every piece of dialogue and every stage action.

With a first act which creates an enigma of puzzles, and a well-timed interval that only creates further intrigue and mystery, not to mention a well-paced, measured and shocking second act culminating in an emotionally devastating and jarring climax, the show maintains a gripping intensity from start to finish.

It’s very rare for a show to really impress me to the levels that Festen manages, but it is very clear that Joshua Harris and his company have spent an enormous amount of time in order to get every element of this play totally right, and they certainly succeed in this aspect. I am happy to totally back why I have given this show maximum marks as it was truly outstanding.

Conclusively, I would thoroughly recommend seeing the show to anyone, and I was delighted to enjoy a great evening of theatre – a true celebration.

Festen continues until Saturday 25th March. Ticket information is available here.

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