Review: Heritage by Berzerk Productions

May Day: it’s either a distress call or a fun day of festivities. Or, if you’ve seen Berzerk’s latest production, a bit of both.

Heritage has been written for the National Theatre’s Connections Project by Dafydd James and a select band of youth theatres across the country get the opportunity to perform it. Berkshire’s Berzerk Productions, headed by the enormously talented Matt Whitlock, is one of them.

The young cast of Berzerk Production’s Heritage

A cast of 13 young actors perform Heritage and they do so with aplomb. The one-act play is both dark comedy and drama, sometimes in the same line.

Set on May Day, the play’s focus is on a group of misfit children brought together to perform a song that will close the celebrations. But as they gather for the village anthem, all is not well: Tubsy’s hiding a cat in his bag, Deirdre-May (Ella Claridge) is grieving her Nanna and Mark (Jake Willmot) decides to turn up not in May Day costume but as a Stegosaurus.

From the moment Tubsy’s (Archie Danbury’s) entrance sparks the opening action to the moving musical finale, it moves along at a blistering pace.

With almost all 13 of the cast on stage all the time, it’s also a demanding 75 minutes of performance: there is no hiding place on the simple stage set where the only props are two benches.

It’s just as well that so much preparation has gone into the show. The youngsters know their characters inside out: they are still acting their parts even when they have no lines to say. When the spotlight was off them, they stay in character. That takes some doing and, as co-director Matt Whitlock revealed to me, it’s the result of several weeks of workshopping before rehearsals even began. The cast really got under the skin of their characters and inhabit them on stage.

It’s unfair to single out any of the cast for their performances, but Jade Chaplain’s Jinx was a masterpiece of letting facial expression and hand gestures say more than words, while Kara Jehan’s Lisa was an expert study of someone trying to hold it all together in the face of adversity, giving a performance that echoed Wendy Craig’s Ria in Butterflies.

Theirs are just two sublime performances from a brilliant cast of incredibly talented youngsters.

The result of the young cast’s skill, the simple, stark stage and the sublimely dark script is an unsettling environment that feels much like The Village from The Prisoner, as well as touches of Big Brother and Lord of the Flies. Their intense performances help weave the adult themes and moments together, creating a convincing environment.

Writing in a blog for the National Theatre, author Dafydd James expands on this macabre atmosphere. He said: “Heritage is about how individuals, in any culture, have the potential to manipulate tradition for fascist gain. A Morris dance, Ceilidh or Michael Flatley could be lethal in the wrong hands, you know what I mean? It’s about the nuances of power within a group and how we often desire our own submission. It’s about questioning the way we protect our differences.”

The play ends with, like all good Morecambe and Wise shows, with a musical number. But it’s not for comic effect. Far from it, it’s just as unsettling, dark and adult as anything else over the past 75 minutes.

Heritage is a terrific ensemble piece, with an amazing cast and superbly directed. It works brilliantly.

The play was performed at the Oakword Centre from Wednesday, March 5 to Friday, March 7. The final performance is held in aid of the Teenage Wilderness Trust, a charity that seeks to re-engage young minds. 

The play will also be performed at The North Wall in Oxford on May Day Eve – Sunday, May 4, 2014. 

For more details, log on to Berzerk’s website.