Gogol's The Portrait
Gogol’s 1835 short story is a morality tale in two parts. Part one being the story of impoverished artist Chartkov, who happens to purchase a disquieting portrait, from which he chooses to become rich, rather than struggle to perfect his art.
Part two tells the story of the mysterious Moneylender, depicted in Chartkov’s portrait and the strange terms of his loans, which always end with his debtors’ miserable end.
***** FIVE STARS
Wise words would stand most of the characters in Gogol’s The Portrait in good stead, as their quest for riches leads them only to tragedy. Returning to their spectacular, anarchic best is Newbury Youth Theatre in this funny, well-acted and brilliantly realized production. There is a buzzing, purposeful busyness at the core of every perfectly constructed scene, and it’s dynamite to watch.
There is never an opportunity wasted here, every moment, word and piece of music is exactly as it should be. Newbury Youth Theatre is an exciting and dynamic young company others could learn from.
British Theatre Guide
***** FIVE STARS
There was a moment of unintended humour before this show even started, an announcement from one of the front of House staff that "The house is now open for Google's The Portrait." A sign of the times!
The Newbury Youth Theatre has an excellent record at the Fringe and they certainly did not disappoint this time. A company of 17 and the tiny stage space of the Quaker Meeting House seemed like a recipe for, if not disaster, at least confusion, but it wasn't so. The members of the company are not only well drilled but sensitive to what is happening around them so that if there was very occasionally a fractional delay in someone being in the right place, it was hardly noticeable and so didn't matter.
This is a true ensemble production with very high production values in Fringe terms. Some of the company play musical instruments to accompany the action and the set, a wall covered with the frames of numerous paintings which opened for the actors behind to speak through them, was impressive. Impressive, too, was the huge puppet of the central character, the Moneylender, which was mainly seen through the top frame but did make one appearance in all his glory on stage.
The piece is full of humour but tells a serious story, typical of Gogol, and this young cast do it full justice. This is a production worthy to stand alongside others by more experienced and older companies.
**** FOUR STARS
Gaze upon this production, oh Fringe veterans, and weep. Because a group of teenagers from Newbury have taken a 19th century Russian parable and act, stage, and sing like it is the only play in the world. Newbury Youth Theatre (NYT) have made Nikolai Gogol's deliciously nasty short story vital using nothing but youthful zest and paper mache.
Set in a drab suburb of St Petersburg, a place where “the future doesn't visit”, The Portrait concerns a picture that seeps evil and misfortune like a cracked nuclear reactor. It is the image of a local moneylender, a man who gave out cash freely, but death and madness stalk those that took it.
When a portraitist captures this inky-eyed creature on canvas, part of his malevolence is locked within its frame. Like the moneylender's cash, the portrait bewitches its owners but ultimately destroys them.
It is an age old parable about money's corrupting influence, with an added Faustian twist. And NYT have twisted it further. They have accentuated its black humour and compiled songs (the closing sequence 'The Devil Changes Hands' depicts the portraits carnage across continents and decades, is particularly brilliant), which keeps the action at a canter.
As you would expect, with more than a dozen actors on stage the standard of performance is variable, but the vast majority of these teenagers are excellent.
A portrait gallery set-up on stage is used inventively throughout in a production that oozes fun as equally as the portrait itself oozes evil.
**** Four Stars
Nikolai Gogol’s short story written in 1835 has been brilliantly interpreted by the well established Newbury Youth Theatre. The strange tale is about a mesmerising portrait with the disturbing eyes bought by Chartkov, an impoverished Russian artist, and the impact the purchase has on his life in this ‘futureless’ town where it’s ‘always yesterday’.
The portrait is of a mysterious usurer whose debtors’ fates have been full of madness, murder, squalor and suicide. The story reveals the history of the portrait, the artist behind it and the effect having painted it had on his life and his family.
On a small and very crowded stage, the seventeen (yes, seventeen!) young actors appear tapping, squeezing, tinkling, rattling, and knocking on old broken instruments the sound of which rises to a cacophony in the intimate space before the action begins. They were so close and in such number that when the ‘music’ stopped and the speech started, it felt like the audience was talking, not realising the play had started.
Once adjusted to this overflowing stage full of a cast in costumes of beautifully blended colour tones of browns, you can settle in to enjoy this immensely imaginative and ingenious production. At this point I must salute the costumier for her creations. This is clearly a low budget show, yet the clothes looked convincing and Chartkov’s beautifully tailored blue coat was covetable to say the least.
With the exception of Chartkov, no one has a specific role in this ensemble performance and it would be impossible to pick anyone out as special from this democratic and talented crew. They are mature young actors yet with enough immaturity to make great comic facial expressions when they are ‘being’ the gallery of paintings and when each get chances to shine as characters.
There are great lyrics in the song about the evil that is passed on with the portrait, ‘when the devil changes hands’, in this very funny and engaging play.
This company deserves a bigger stage to accommodate the array of talent as their current venue felt like they were acting in a living room. It is testimony to their talent that they carried off such a great performance.
**** FOUR STARS
This was one of those really pleasant surprises. A group of about 20 very young people have put on a really impressive show here.
The story is a classic Russian tale of an artist who is persuaded- after buying a portrait of a moneylender – that financial success is all, and becomes a society painter, until he sees the work of an old friend who has remained true to his art, and he then begins an orgy of artistic destruction. This is just the core story – there are a number of subsidiary ones, and here the story has been “straightened out” to make it more dramatically accessible without missing anything out.
There is a lot of humour here and the cast are very versatile and winning. They use many musical instruments – brass, xylophone and much else – and have some songs of their very own. The set is brilliant, with its use of tiers of windows, and when the monstrous usurer appears on stage – this must be the biggest puppet on the Fringe! –swathed in demonic smoke.
This is a most enjoyable and entertaining hour, and it is to be hoped that some of the cast at least go on to develop their evident skills.
**** FOUR STARS
For a youth theatre company, in fact for any theatre company, Newbury Youth Theatre is much acclaimed – deservedly so.
“staggering in its ambition and wholly successful in its execution”
At this year’s Fringe they take Nikolai Gogol’s demonic short story and turn it into a wonderfully imaginative gambolling vaudeville. NYT’s adaptation is staggering in its ambition and wholly successful in its execution and the sheer talent of the cast is illustrated by the fact that the performance is devised.
The seventeen cast members fill the fairly small stage for the entire hour and fifteen minute run time. It’s raucous and fast paced but amazingly at no point does the performance area seem cramped. Rarely have I seen so many people so meticulously directed. The piece’s fluidity is outstanding. The atmosphere created is fantastic. The backdrop is used in many dynamic ways – as a house and a gallery, for example – whilst the ubiquity of the baleful portrait hanging in the centre reinforces the central narrative thread of this fairy tale of greed and genius.
There’s so much potential for things to go so horribly wrong and yet at no point were the ensemble in any danger of letting things slip. The use of live music is a case in point. The Newbury Youth Theatre are a talented bunch and the fact that they performed all musical effects on stage and in character was enviable – ‘the devil changes hands’ song is particularly notable, perfectly illustrating the troupe’s ability to combine group chorus and monologue exposition. The whole event is pulled off with aplomb.
The only discernible weakness of the production is that the darker elements of the story are lost amidst all the cavorting. The serious scenes are not menacing enough – at no point did I actually fear the demonic portrait and I wasn’t wholly convinced that the actors feared it either. The production seems to revel in its own inventiveness rather than giving the impression of any duty to explore the potential social debate the story prompts (the parallel between being shackled by art and being shackled by usury, for example). I am, however, perhaps being greedy to ask for more than what the NYT already offer. Their propensity for performance creates a hugely dynamic and interesting interpretation of a well-worn topos: the power of art to allure and destroy, in the same vein as Dorian Gray.
Describing this as ‘youth theatre’ is in danger of unfairly confining the group to a stereotype where the term ‘youth’ becomes a glib excuse for poor acting. Their professionalism transcends such connotations of amateurism and makes The Portrait a highlight of the Fringe.
**** FOUR STARS
In this devised production based upon the nineteenth-century short story 'Gogol's the Portrait', Newbury Youth Theatre eloquently and energetically capture the atmosphere of life around St Petersburg as they musically chart the journey of a moneylender's devilish portrait finally acquired by the struggling painter Chartkov.
“A terrific and decisive example of talent matched with concept”
The show is stylistically very impressive. Set, costume and make up all combine to create a rustic history of Russian peasants and nobles beset by poverty and greed. Quirky and energetic they bounce through songs such as 'Hey-ho and the devil changes hands' and an earlier gleeful ditty about the madness of Ivan Ivanovitch. The intervening music during the scenes is eerie if not quite as ghostly as the portrait may warrant. Meanwhile enchanting and restrained use of masks and puppetry is made to present the moneylender himself.
More arresting, however, are the performances of the young cast. Their sense of timing and physicality is wonderful and ensure that this tale of human misery is poignant without ever being gloomy. A multitude of portrayals is given by each member and the consistency of the acting was heartening as the ensemble took turns to narrate and comment on the action. Moreover, they produced some wonderful and grotesque facial expressions among which those of mad Ivan and the young woman with many suitors were particularly memorable. The range of these expressions is further tested by the use of the cast to play the many portraits (and landscapes) which populate the tale. It is these which primarily distinguish the show and their use was inspired.
There was no point where anything felt lacking or the audience was disappointed and the young actors have produced something which should be seen as an inspiration to all practitioners of youth theatre. A terrific and decisive example of talent matched with concept, 'Gogol's the Portrait' is truly spectacular.
*** THREE STARS
An exceptional young group who consistently produce terrific work, Newbury Youth Theatre's latest piece is a new adaptation (by Amy and Tony Trigwell-Jones) of a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.
Bustling with activity, the stage is filled with performers playing musical instruments; everything from trumpets and trombones to a xylophone and accordion.
The story charts the journey of a struggling artist in St Petersburg who stumbles upon a sour-faced portrait that curses anyone who owns it. A piece about the difference between "real" and commercial art, the cast's painted white faces become caricatures of wealthy patrons within the empty frames of a beautifully designed set (by James Lewis and Rebecca Glover). Filled with self-referential humour and visual comedy, they give unaffected performances that might lack the polish of professionals, but have their own kind of charm.
Instruments, picture frames and people are joyfully strewn across the floor, building to a conclusion that asks us to question how artistic talent can be used for both good and bad.
The emergence of the figure behind the cursed portrait makes for one particularly striking moment, as does a scene in which we become the pictures in a gallery, with the performers staring at us, rather than us at them.
*** Three Stars
This admirable piece of youth theatre takes its strong narrative from Gogol’s 1835 short morality tale. The story centres on a mysterious money lender whose easy terms attracts debtors from all sections of society but, no matter what their background, they all share a common, miserable end. The demonic qualities of this usurer are transferred to his portrait, and the play begins at the point of sale of this cursed piece of art.
From then on the large, talented cast of Newbury Youth Theatre tell the grim tale of those whose poor fate it is to be associated with the portrait. The ensemble perform with zest their own adaptation of the story; combining well choreographed scenes, moments of comedy and a fresh use of accompanying music in the form of broken instruments.
The whole production is charged with a sense of the sharp, new talent that has created and leads this commendable show.
*** THREE STARS
Attempting to adapt a Russian short story as strange as The Portrait was always going to be a difficult task for The Newbury Youth Theatre. The show follows a demonic portrait as it changes hands and causes the death of everyone who possesses it. The programme was the first sign that this show was going to be unconvincing. The title was brazenly spelt ‘Portyait’ on the cover. Unfortunately, the misuse of the Cyrillic я was only the first misuse in this performance.
This is not to say that show is bad. There are some good performances here. The narration of the story is varied and interesting, the set is cluttered and fun and the ensemble-work is polished. The most interesting moments come when the actors play portraits. These freeze-frames are effective and entertaining.
Despite this, none of the characters is convincing. Often the players seem simply to be narrating rather than stepping into a true character. It feels like the actors are reading to keep the pace up rather than actually getting involved in their show. On top of this, the variety of set pieces is simply overwhelming. This stops the show from having a central style, causing it to feel schizophrenic and as cluttered as the set.
Even worse than these problems is the use of music. Although a lot of the music is well performed by the ensemble, it is handled with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. The actors keep bursting into song for no apparent reason apart from the fact that they were told to. The musical style is massively varied from jazz to a stylistic chant musically backed by guitars and brass. These seemingly random choices of genre add to the increasing sense of confusion that this play presents.
This show had a lot of potential, but at the moment it leaves me as white-faced as the actors performing it.
Audience reviews (via edfringe.com)
Excellent production. Creative use of props. Josh Hitch was incredible. 8/10
A marvelously adapted and wonderfully staged performance. There are some really smart bits in here. Worth the visit.