Sophy Leys Johnston reviews ‘Fresher’ – a play about the ups and downs of university life.
Tucked away in the back streets of Bath, the cosy Rondo Theatre (est.1989), once a local church hall, plays host to an array of up-and-coming fringe acts. Pippa Thornton is one of the latest talents to occupy the Rondo’s stage with her new play ‘Fresher’.
With a cast and crew almost entirely made of women, Thornton offers a refreshingly relatable, and darkly comical portrayal of the tumultuous period of adjustment into student life. Freshers Chloe, Holly, Tash and Sophie are thrust together as flatmates and must navigate the highs and (very low) lows of first year. Drunken arguments, messy break-ups and frequent lecture skipping- “but you only need 40% to pass”- are the norm, a far cry from the “life-changing-soul-transforming” experience that the girls are promised. But it is Holly’s completely care-free attitude to the surrounding chaos that gradually emerges as a cover for a far more troubled past, and one that can only be suppressed for so long, no matter how many Jagerbombs she downs.
As both writer and director, Thornton is, of course, to credit for the play’s sharp wit, almost embarrassing relatability and fast-paced action. It’s clear that Thornton speaks from experience; she’s not just another automaton echoing the sounds of society’s broken record crying out that university will give you the “best years of your life”. Instead, she acknowledges the blunder and awkwardness that accompanies almost every fresher, alongside the inevitable toll this can take on students’ mental health, an all too pertinent topic in today’s climate. Shifting rapidly between the comic, the dark and the darkly comic, Thornton makes sure to keep her audience on their toes. Just as we begin to feel comfortable with- almost bored by- the simplicity of one character, Thornton flips all expectations on their head to present the unexpected villain of the narrative. Though such shifts in both character and tone occurred a little abruptly at points, with heightened humour appearing almost jarring in scenes following dark emotion, it was, nonetheless, riveting to watch as an audience member.
The remainder of the credit must be awarded, undoubtedly, to the show’s cast, who were nothing short of brilliant. With moments of pure comedy cringe (drunkenly grinding centre stage in front of a large audience is not an easy feat to pull off) on one end of the spectrum, contrasted by vulnerable and emotional monologues on the other, the cast appeared to single-handedly transform the Rondo’s initially ‘cosy’ stage into a much bigger and grander space. Perhaps amongst the cast’s finest moments were their performances as an ensemble. The play’s opening scene for instance – a whirlwind of competitive introductions and personality clashes – perfectly showcases the actors’ cohesive comic timing and characterful physicality alongside Thornton’s astutely hilarious script.
One of the play’s (few) faults was perhaps in its sound design. The initial comedy of high volume, cheesy tunes designed to create a student club-like ambience (particularly apt in setting the tone as the audience take their seats) became almost intrusive at points during the play and resulted in distracting from both the action and dialogue on stage. The play’s minimalist, yet effective, staging would perhaps have been better matched by a more simple, and less invasive soundtrack.
Regardless, the overall play is one that should not be missed. As an all too memorable depiction (more than I’d like to admit) of first-year confusion and adjustment, ‘Fresher’ slowly emerges as a rollercoaster of a tragedy sustained by well-written and masterfully-acted humour, rather than the dark comedy it is initially pitched as.
Image Courtesy of Flipside Productions.