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Student theatre is a tricky beast. One the one hand there’s a chance you may be seeing the stars of tomorrow performing something that truly speaks to you, yet you also run the risk of sitting through a confusing set of ‘deep’ metaphors punctuated with non-sequitur lines and painful slams against ‘the man’ and ‘big business’ (though admittedly I’ve only ever seen those types of plays in rubbish nineties sitcoms).
Luckily Unit Nine, an original piece from the Lancaster University Theatre Group directed by Chiara Wakely and Aurelia Gage, erred towards the former example, giving the audience a propulsive, twist-filled thriller that was more than worth the £7 I paid to get in.
Mandatory plot summary: Captain James Price, disgraced from the army, is offered a job in Unit Nine, a top-secret secure facility holding the most dangerous prisoners (and as it turns out, staff) in the world. An interaction with a prisoner sets a series of events in motion filled to the brim with lies, betrayal and a bit where a man gets a beer can thrown at his face.
Special mention really does have to go to the writing here, as Chiara Wakely has written a tense and ambitious work that would function just as well on the screen as it does on the stage. Just as you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the world, it wrong foots you again and the endings to both acts were nerve-wracking to the point where I realised I hadn’t blinked or breathed in a while.
Of course a lot of this is due to the effective use of lighting and staging Unit Nine utilised, cloaking the room in shadows to create an oppressive and intimidating atmosphere that complemented the tone of the play well, especially in the chilling final moments.
This meant that the play truly shone in its quieter moments, especially compared to the ‘shoutier’ scenes in the beginning which seemed a bit at odds with the menace of the rest of the piece. Scenes also flowed together with minimal fuss – no mean feat in a play that jumps around so much in time.
All the performances carried the script satisfactorily, though special mention has to go to Charity Bedu-Addo and Abbie Jones who in their roles as Robyn and Emma respectively manage to tread the line between vulnerability and menace incredibly well (Bedu-Addo’s performance at the end of the first half in particular genuinely moved the audience to stunned silence as the lights came up).
This is not to disparage the work of Will Dean, Jack ‘Jack’ Maidment, Grace Morrison or Luke McDonnell, who all manage to infuse great range into their characters.
Aside from a few minor quibbles I have (the louder moments, a character or two that I feel could have done more in the script), Unit Nine is a truly impressive piece of theatre that I’d highly recommend if there’s ever a chance to see it again – I know the performance I attended was being filmed.
All the disparate parts – solid direction, emotive staging and fine acting and writing – came together to create an engaging piece of theatre. The other two LUTG plays this term have a tough act to follow.