Treading the Boards

It’s not as scary as it sounds: the Cambridge theatre scene de-mystified

ADC Cambridge Catz Footlights Germain Greer Mitchell and Webb Pembroke Selwyn Theatre

There are enough things to fear in Cambridge. Death by bicycle, your supervisor (s/he’s written how many books?), swine flu, getting locked in the laundry room (speaking from personal first-week experience, festering in there until someone else comes in and leaping at them, wild-eyed, wild-haired and gibbering, is not a favourable first impression)…And then there are the other students. But sooner or later you find your way – you crack a joke in a supervision and win a reluctant, fleeting smile, you invest in shares in Tamiflu, you find your clique – and you start to take an interest in the Cambridge outside the immediate necessities of your survival.

Cambridge has spawned such stars of the stage as Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf to you and I), Emma Thompson, Laurie and Fry, Mitchell and Webb, Richard Ayoade, more recently Simon Bird and Joe Thompson (Will and Simon in The Inbetweeners): a roll call of successful actors and comedians, all of whom were, at one point, students at the very same university that you attend now. It is easy to think that the halcyon years are behind us, but consider that Mitchell and Webb probably didn’t realise they’d come to be Channel 4’s most popular sexually-repressed exports; I doubt even Sir Ian McKellen – with whatever magical powers he might have – saw Gandalf coming when he was still an undergraduate with a weekly essay crisis and an empty wallet. Cambridge has a plethora of dramatic opportunities; at least go to see what’s on offer as an alternative to Cindies with slightly more culture kudos. If you’re a Fresher, remember, no one knows you here (yet) so they don’t have to know that the furthest your school acting career ever went was playing Tree #3 in the nativity play. Or, apply to direct or produce. For the last two years, the Pembroke Players have taken plays to Japan during the summer vacation – last year, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, this year, ‘The Tempest – so you could find yourself halfway across the world with a little luck and perseverance. Furthermore, our thespians and comedians are seasoned performers at the Edinburgh Fringe – it is not idealistic to consider that today’s new writing might well evolve into the popular sketch shows of the next decade.

Simon Haines agrees. Simon, a second year English student at Selwyn, has written ‘Struts and Frets’, the ADC Week One Lateshow – shortlisted for the Footlights Harry Porter Prize, it impressed even cantankerous alumna Germaine Greer (she dubbed it ‘very funny’). ‘Struts and Frets’ follows Keith, a mediocre actor with designs on playing Macbeth; running parallel to his story is Lydia’s, an obsessive fan of Keith who has followed him since his appearance in ‘Maidenhead Revisited’. Haines explains that the defining feature of the Cambridge drama scene is its universality – when I mention the archetypal Cambridge thespian lolling on a sofas in the ADC bar, wearing arty STASH from their latest play, and casting withering glances at the uninitiated – I am assured they’re friendlier than they look, and that the Cambridge drama scene isn’t anywhere near as scary as reputation suggests. ‘If you’re keen to become involved, it’s very easy to do so. The ADC alone puts on at least two shows a week, and say there are five parts per play, each needing at least one director and producer, there’s a lot of scope to get involved at some level. Furthermore, there are a number of college-based drama societies, who’ll be able to provide funding and venues.’ Both of us being English students, our mental arithmetic left something to be desired, but that’s a lot of theatre.

Haines is also involved in the Mighty Players’  competition to write the Selwyn Freshers’ Play (deadline was the 1st October – watch this space) and wrote a play for the Miscellaneous Theatre Festival which took place in Lent term. The festival, the brainchild of Jeremy Hardingham (manager of the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio) and run by Emma Hogan, another current undergraduate was branded as ‘a three-day event (free of charge), unlike anything else you will see in Cambridge: a festival where pieces – mime, recordings, the uncategorized – can form a dialogue with other words. There is no requirement for ‘polish’ or ‘definite finish’, no application process.’ Edward Herring, a second year at Catz, wrote a play for the festival, and explains, ‘it’s a really inviting forum for someone who’s essentially a novice, like me. Watching my own play was exciting, but there was an anxious pleasure to sweating in my seat watching other plays better than my own wordy turd of a piece…In all seriousness, it was a valuable experience, one which only impels me to write more.’

The picture that emerges is one of a fresh, dynamic theatre scene, with plenty of scope for new writing and new faces. If you aren’t keen to tread the boards yourself – or to direct those treading them – at least take a wander down to the ADC (it’s really not far away) and sample what our thesps have to offer.

‘Struts and Frets’ will be playing at the ADC at 11pm, 14th – 17th October