The Portrait 2011

Nikolai Gogol’s haunting story of greed and narcissism was a difficult tale to adapt for the stage. However, such is Gogol’s cult status that, in 2011, we received a record NINE reviews for one of our shows, with many members of the press and audiences giving us the highest possible praise.

Cast: Matthew Hodgkin, Rob Lees, Callum Battersby, Lola Wingrove, Georgia Scarr, Lucy Kane, Lizzy Hayes, Kathryn Kaiser, Tom Serruya, Tom Norman, Josh Hitch, Tom Hamblin, Karim Newton, Amy Scarrett, Jenny Jones, Sian Jenkins, Martha Minall, Katrina Findlay.

The Herald *****

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 *****

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.

Peter Lathan

FEST ****

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. ****

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.

ScotsGay ****

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. ****

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. ****

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.

Newbury Weekly News

Having built up a reputation at the Edinburgh Fringe over the past 15 years as a force to be reckoned through their powerful ensemble productions, Newbury Youth Theatre will be returning to Scotland on Monday with another vibrant performance, this time based on a short story by 19th-century Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

Adapted and directed by Amy and Tony Trigwell-Jones and devised by the company, The Portrait was a story fizzing with thrills, shocks and humour, as a crowd gathered at an auction house to observe the sale of an infamous portrait, said to bring doom to its owners “as the devil changes hands”.

Using the bric-a-brac surrounding them, the crowd told the history of the portrait, and its subject, a mysterious moneylender whose loans similarly led to disaster for those obliged to borrow from him.

With the ensemble cast of 17 made up with ghostly faces in varying shades of pale, this was a spooky tale, but one shot through with a strong sense of humour and a big dose of jollity, as portraits came to life, ghosts wafted into dreams and ghastly deaths were re-created through physical theatre, slapstick, clowning, shadowplay and puppetry

An ingeniously designed set filled with picture frames, atmospheric music played on broken instruments (and beautifully-tuned water-filled jam jars) and folk-style songs and costumes reflecting the Russian setting, added further strength to a performance full of impact and, most important, fabulously entertaining.

In the telling of a morality tale warning of the dangers of creating art for gain and glory rather than for its own sake, the wholehearted investment of the entire Newbury Youth Theatre company into the production was clear.

The result was a devilish delight of dark pleasures, which deserves to wow once again in Edinburgh.


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