Written by award-winning playwright Yolanda Mercy and directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, Summer Fest is a darkly humorous play, vividly recreating what it describes as the ‘brave new world’ of Freshers’ Week. This week constitutes an era of freedom, film-worthy experiences and enlightenment from adolescent naivety—or so it seems. In our adrenaline-fuelled young heads, dying to experience a new thrill, there is menace behind conforming to convention and the vulnerability behind the youth’s inclination for the extreme.
The set does a great job in capturing the sparkling superficiality of the festivities, wrapping around the impressionable minds of newcomers like neon Fresher’s wristbands. Upon entry into the intimate theatre, there is already a frantic energy on stage caused by the 21 characters’ hectic mingling, as their voices and costumes clash in a cacophony of activity. Watching this is as fascinating as it is uncomfortable, since we are lured into participating in the frenzied spectacle by the ecstatic cast, showing how easy it is to be tempted by a world of distractions. Most audience members accept the course of events with a mix of curiosity and bafflement, attesting to our inherent tendency to adapt to the surroundings as a mirror for the students’ own psyche.
Students in the play slip into a vicious game that promises to offer them a position in ‘The Society’. Following the loud blow of a whistle, the students are set on missions to prove themselves. The abrupt shift between this scene and Kenzy’s monologue (played fantastically by Adrian David Paul) splits the public persona, of having to blend in, from the private self, who comes out only when feeling comfortable. Although he is a natural diva, Kenzy's timidity for fear of rejection stops him from going clubbing on his own until he is asked out by two of his flatmates. This is a major struggle at university, and what other better way to overcome this than to be a part of a society?
Director Lakesha Arie-Angelo makes transitions between scenes fluid and swift, which, despite fragmenting the narrative at times, lends the action an impending sense of doom. The vignette-style of presentation used by Arie-Angelo, combined with brilliant acting from Playing Up Company, allows the characters to stand out on their own as individuals from a diverse pool of backgrounds. However, their differences are also the cause of their discomfort, taking form in the toxic culture of hazing. ‘If you’re to succeed in a society, you’ve got to respect the rules,’ is the conclusive statement Sasha delivers, ending a heated conversation between her and her friend from home, as they argue about Sasha’s sudden personality change.
The ominous silence of Greg Arundell’s character, Jenkins, as he sits staring into the ground, illustrates how the stressful challenges send students into spirals of paranoia and self-worthlessness. By using the classic motif of the Pandora’s Box, in which the list of challenges is lying dormant, the writer suggests the difficulty to escape the cult-like grip of ‘The Society’. There are, however, some moments of tenderness, such as the warmly lit, sweet-spoken scene between Blanche Osma’s and Ashley Snoding’s characters, which shine a light on their soft interior and ultimate desire to connect. Unfortunately, these quickly dissolve into frenzies of animalistic movement, unleashed on raucous music that anticipates a shocking ending.
Conversations I had with both actors and the production team after the play revealed that much of this story is based on real student experiences. By presenting such raw issues, Summer Fest is an insightful ride into the turbulent transition from home to university through the prism of a wide-ranging cast and a multi-layered story. Slightly more elaboration of ideals of friendship inside and outside of ‘The Society’ might have strengthened the audience’s attachment to the characters even more, but considering its compact length, this is an understandable limitation. The interactions tying this story together feel nevertheless genuine and left me wanting to know what would happen next to this compelling array of characters.
Summer Fest is a production of the National Youth Theatre’s Playing Up Company was on at the Bunker Theatre until the 13th of July and more information can be found here.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor