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Theatre review: The Letter Killers Club

06 Jul 2024 6 minute read
The Letter Killers Club from The Awen Project

Molly F. Stubbs

Whether you once landed a leading role that was the envy of friends, or are a seasoned spectator in the audience of school plays, youth theatre has likely played a part in your life. In my case, I was thrust into the arms of am-dram educators every Saturday in my sixteenth year, if only to give my parents some peace.

After it all, despite the nervous breath shakings, inevitable prop breakings, and slight hint of embarrassment that tinges them all, the resounding memories of my stint as a young thespian are fond ones.

But my time in youth theatre, like that of many others, was governed by the tried, tested, and widely employed “do what you’re told” method of production. Our instructors handed us pre-selected scripts of established plays, picked parts, staged scenes, gave parents strict instructions for costumes, and shepherded us backstage. In many ways, this is also how professional theatre productions function.

For the students of The Awen Project, however, creative control for their newest production lay entirely in their hands. In January 2024, the democratic school, which holds its lessons in South Wales’ woodland, launched a curriculum designed by Jonathan Powell Field and Valentine Gigandet to “facilitate the students (aged 11-15) to write, design, direct, perform, and promote their own theatre show.” After six months of work, the result, The Letter Killers Club, premiered at Kings Road Yard on the 4th of July to a sold-out crowd.

You may, upon reading that title, be rendered scratching your head in slight confusion, just as I was a few nights ago. The Letter Killers Club is not a play you’ve ever heard of because it is, in fact, not a play at all. It is a novel by Soviet author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, which served as the students’ inspiration for their script.

Fantastical yarns

The narrative follows a clandestine group of storytellers who, given their society has banned everything from fairytales to folios, take their lives into their hands each time they meet. The members of The Letters Killers Club spin fantastical yarns, played out in full for the audience, while being persecuted by the governing conglomerates who take drastic measures against them.

Adapting a story for stage is a massive achievement in its own right, and one that even some established playwrights have yet to attempt. But, with a combination of dynamic drama, haunting tension, and pantomime comedy, all doled out in just the right amounts at just the right times, the cast and crew of

The Letter Killers Club have made the feat look easy. The plot is startlingly mature in its complexity and rewardingly well-rounded, to the extent that their script could (and most definitely should) be published and replicated by theatre groups across the country.

The Letter Killers Club from The Awen Project

Immersion

Even more impressive is the cast’s ability to act at such close quarters to their audience. Black box theatres are renowned for providing an intimate experience that, again, even seasoned professionals can struggle to adapt to. With the fourth wall perhaps as thin as it could be at Kings Road Yard, I was pleasantly surprised by the actors’ commitment to their work, generating an at-times effortless immersion that made the hour-long performance feel more like fifteen minutes. I was left simultaneously satisfied and wanting to see much more of what The Awen Project’s students could do.

Bearing in mind that the six leading players took on multiple roles, switching between them at the drop of a hat, of note were the entrancing expressiveness of Imeldamai Pyke, angelic voice of Neve Darlington, archetypal command of Osian Bridges, enormous stage presence of Isabelle Jennings, hilarious cross-casting of Rowan Fernando, and breathtaking characterisation, well beyond his years, of Dexter Henson.

With the narrative as a solid foundation, the cherry on top was the range of high-level techniques employed by the cast, the best of which was undoubtedly the puppetry of Celyn Hudson, Arthur Croad, and Will Maybury.

Complemented by Chloe Maybury, Ruby Henson, and Ethan Wyatt, who kept the wheels turning behind the scenes, and lights and projections by Josh Armstrong and Manny Cole respectively, I found myself somewhat incensed that the backdrop of black curtains did not open to reveal a proscenium arch theatre, which would have been much better suited to the standard of show unfolding in front of me.

Even so, despite its envy-inducing quality (the likes of which my youth theatre groups never managed to achieve), what I adored most about The Letter Killers Club were its imperfections. Graced by chance with a seat in the front row, I was not only privy to a captivating performance, but also fun snaps exploding off cue, curtains breaking, hands trembling, and congratulatory thumbs up between cast members from opposite wings.

Elevated experience

In my time, I would’ve looked upon these occurrences as things that went ‘wrong,’ but watching them unfold in The Letter Killers Club and still finding myself drawn immediately back to the story, the only possible conclusion was that they elevated the experience. Though the team will likely treat them as points for improvement in future, these moments added a layer of authenticity and charm that I would not have forgone in pursuit of ‘perfection’.

They serve as reminders that the magic of theatre lies not just in flawless execution but in the unfiltered passion and camaraderie of the performers. Every squealing microphone and technical difficulty is, in its own way, something to be proud of – proof that The Awen Project’s students have hand-crafted an exemplary theatrical experience from well before casting right through to curtain call.

The project’s founder, Charlotte Church, echoed my sentiments in her statement, “When I set up Awen, this is the kind of thing I hoped the students would be doing. This isn’t just a school play – this is a group of passionate young people who have created a theatre company, learning along the way all the skills that are needed to make one. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Underscoring the importance of creative works in a world that does not afford them due appreciation, The Letter Killers Club is a wonderful match for its unorthodox production team who, with the help of their educators, have overcome the restrictions that plague their characters. I hope with all my heart that there is more of the same stage-based whimsy to come from this group, and that I should be front row for it all.

The Letter Killers Club runs to the 7th of July at Kings Road Yard Studio in Pontcanna. The remaining tickets are available here. If you want to learn more about The Awen Project, further information is available on their site, with additional updates posted regularly on their student-run Instagram.


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