Gogol's the Portrait

Mon 8th – Sat 13th August 2011


Ryan Sarsfield

at 08:56 on 10th Aug 2011



For a youth theatre company, in fact for any theatre company, Newbury Youth Theatre is much acclaimed – deservedly so.

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.


Rebecca Tatlow

at 10:36 on 10th Aug 2011



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.

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.


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