My first visit to the Northcott Theatre was an on-the spot decision when a friend said she was buying tickets, and it is a very attractive space, with a modern gallery bar looking out onto the Forum hill, and seating for 460 inside the theatre itself. It is an intimate, well-equipped space, and the current production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, by Exeter University Theatre Company, is a play not to be missed. Coinciding with a cinema adaptation, it is a gripping story which combines laugh-out-loud moments with darkness and extreme discomfort.
Sitting in the second row last night I freely admit to knowing next to nothing about the production before going. The trailer gave little away, except that it concerned the chaotic life of a drug-addicted cancer patient and her family. So, as we waited for the lights to dim, I was somewhat concerned that I had signed myself up for three hours of family drama which I could easily find at home.
However, ten minutes in and I was hooked; the fast-paced, quick-fire quips and insults and outstanding acting engaged me in the characters’ lives from the start. I was actually annoyed when the interval begin, and I looked around me suddenly conscious of all the other people in the audience, and the goofy look of engagement that I must have had on my face as I watched. Like all good plays the narrative is complex, and deals with the difficult issues of drug addiction and living with cancer in a moving and humane way, without being overly sentimental. You empathise with all the characters in turn, and morally it is very hard to judge who has the upper hand at which point. Hannah Lawrence stands out as mad Violet Weston, and the psychological reality of her life as a drug-addled cancer patient whose family has essentially run away from their problems is presented with real conviction.
The staging on multiple levels and sophisticated lighting allowed the play to be more immediate, especially given the steeply raked seating. Many of the actors remained in tableaux onstage while other scenes went on, which created an additional dimension of reality, such as when Bill and Barbara have an argument in the dining room whilst their daughter Jean watches television in the living room next door to distract herself.
As one of the principal student productions running at the Northcott this year, there was a lot of pressure to pull out all the stops. However, it certainly did, and August stood out as one of the best student productions I have ever seen.