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This year's Area semi final took place over the weekend of 6/7 May at Saltburn Community Theatre. Although a cold wind blew in from the North Sea, near capacity audiences on both nights were kept warm by varied repertoire across a range of genres. Saltburn '53, on their own turf, not only planned and organised the event superbly under the leadership of Sheenah Taylor but were also one of the participating groups. Robert Meadows (GODA) provided astute and thoughtful assessments from the stage, leavened with his customary humour.

Dewsbury Arts Group, always powerful contenders, opened the Saturday show with ACTING LEADER, a two-hander by Joy Wilkinson - a short and witty dramatisation of scenes from Margaret Becket's short time as deputy leader of the Labour Party under John Smith, her brief period as acting leader after his death and her ill-fated participation in the subsequent leadership contest won by Tony Blair. Maria Bailey played Margaret with aplomb and Stacey Waterworth assumed a variety of roles (both male and female) including Peter Mandelson, Clare Short and John Prescott.

Carlton Players from Birkenhead followed with the ubiquitously performed THE FAT LADY SINGS IN LITTLE GRIMLEY by David Tristram. You either love or hate this kind of repertoire but the four performers certainly relished the task and played the humour for all it was worth. It would be good to see more of this group (the proud occupants of THE LITTLE THEATRE in Birkenhead) in different repertoire. There is certainly confident and experienced talent in their ranks.

Saturday concluded with Saltburn '53's cast of thousands under the (always imaginative and inspiring) direction of Sue Pierce, performing the intriguingly titled MOLES AND THE HABITS OF BIRDS by Evan Roberts (a pseudonym). The title is taken from the report of the Tribunal of Enquiry into the Aberfan disaster and the play dramatises, through the eyes of selected families, the run-up to the tragedy, its aftermath of loss and grief and the subsequent fight for justice. This was all-embracing community drama at its finest. It wasn't always polished, accents weren't always authentic and there was some lack of projection from younger voices. However, its impact was visceral and the employment of off-stage live musicians (an endearing house style) enhanced a most moving play.

Blackburn Drama Club opened the Sunday show with ADDRESS UNKNOWN, a dramatisation of an epistolary novel by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. Set in the mid 1930s in both America and Germany, the play traces the deteriorating relationship between Max, an immigrant Jewish American, and his close friend and (non-Jewish) business partner Martin who, having moved back to Germany, enthusiastically espouses the norms of the National Socialists. The slowly developing trajectory of this impressive play and its tragic and disturbing conclusion were brought memorably to life by two skilled actors, one of whom, Steven Derbyshire, again gave the finest single performance I have ever seen at a festival. Those of you who saw this play sweep the board at Knaresborough might have noted some technical glitches (including the fact that the projector could not be used at the semi final venue). Certainly the bigger stage robbed the performance of a little intimacy but the achievement was still hugely impressive.

Cumbria Amateur Theatre Society followed with BLOOD ON CANVAS by Richard James. CATS are a small group who always make the most of their resources. At festivals they specialise in performing out-of-way two-handers and, in Kath Smith (last year's Best Actress at Port Sunlight) they have a very talented performer who clearly relishes playing eccentric, nervy and sinister characters. Richard James's play is a suspenseful thriller set in the studio of Maddie (played by Lesley Skelton), a recently successful artist. She is visited by the nervy and normally housebound Stella (played by Kath Smith), who purports to be a fan. There have been a series of murders in the vicinity. Are Maddie and Stella quite who they seem to be? Is one of them the actual murderer? The play outstays its welcome, but the two actresses did their director proud.

Sedgfield Players concluded the weekend's action with THE REGINA MONOLOGUES by Rebecca Russell and Jenny Wafer. This intriguing play, a modern take on the six wives of Henry VIII, reveals the inner thoughts, feelings and emotions of six women who have been married to a wealthy and influential business man. The play pulls no punches in its language and intimate, no-holds- barred revelations about sex, sexual abuse and childbirth but Sarah Atkinson, Sarah Legender, Sharon Davey, Hilary Yeoman, Jessica Sadler and Vic Jacobs all brought uninhibited life to the very different characters. The set, employing a huge double bed, was most impressive, though the choreography might have benefitted from being a little less busy and I, for one, had difficulty in following the rapid line delivery. Nonetheless, an impressive achievement by both the cast and the director, Tom Guest.

THE RESULTS

THE HARRY MELLOR CUP (Best Décor) - Sedgfield Players

THE PAUL DYSON TROPHY (Adjudicator's discretionary award) - Sue Pierce (Saltburn '53)

THE TSB SILVER SALVER (Best Actress) - Sarah Legender (Sedgfield Players)

THE ELMA TROPHY (Best Actor) - Steven Derbyshire (Blackburn Drama Club)

THE SILVER STAG (Team going forward to the AETF Grand Final) - SALTBURN '53

The result was a very close-run thing between Saltburn and Blackburn. We wish Sue Pierce and her wonderful cast every success at Bridgwater. Next year we hope to welcome to the semi final the winner of the brand new Durham and Sunderland one-act festival which, thanks to Alan Godfrey, opens its doors to the public at Washington, Co Durham, and will become the AETF's northernmost outpost. We also hope our friends from the Manx one-act will be able to participate.

IAN CLARKE - AETF NORTH