Shopping baskets brimming with fake flowers, gold trainers and a lone hanging microphone. A girl (Georgia May Hughes) runs around the stage handing out torches to the audience members, an odd mix of over 50s and under 25s and seemingly no ages in between, if it wasn’t for her bright blue jumper with Katie printed in white letters, you could be forgiven for thinking she was a member of the crew. This is what I saw when I stepped into the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond to see Katie Johnstone by Luke Barnes, the first of three plays running at Orange Tree Theatre as part of their Director’s Festival. A unique collaboration between Orange Tree Theatre and St Mary’s University has resulted in an MA in Theatre Directing course which is housed in a producing theatre (the only course to do so in the UK). The three directors on the course are Samson Hawkins, Dominique Chapman and Evangeline Cullingworth who are directing Katie Johnstone, Precious Little Talent and In the Night Time (Before The Sun Rises) for the Director’s Festival respectively.
Infused with Alex Turner’s greatest hits, Katie Johnstone is a raucous rollercoaster exploration of what it means to have ambitions and to believe in yourself when no one else does. Katie, a working class teenager in a small town in the North of the England, has one goal; to be a millionaire and make the town she lives in better for everyone. How she is going to achieve that she doesn’t know although she does knows that settling and getting a job in Tesco is not the answer. Surrounding Katie is a plethora of characters who want to ground her in reality. Despite their very reasonable concerns about Katie’s business plan, or rather lack of, Katie’s optimism for her future is so strong that the audience are immediately on her side, willing her to succeed and rather confident that she will. As the play progresses, and Katie tries ridiculous business idea after the other (everything from growing nuts for squirrels and selling Sky remote), Katie relationships with both her mum and best friend Janet start to become strained and it seems all that she has is connection with a fox who visits her garden each night.
Hughes is such a natural fit for the role of Katie that it is almost difficult to believe she is even acting. Likewise Kristin Atherton and Reuben Johnson give strong performances in each of the multiple roles they play throughout the piece. It is clear that the cast are tight; at one point a piece of the set broke and the actors improvised around it so well that I was left second-guessing whether it was intentional or not.
The stamina of the actors must by highly commended; for most of the play they are running about the intimate round Orange Tree stage, jumping from block to block and screaming Arctic Monkey’s lyrics at the top of their lungs. In fact at no point during the 90-minute show is Hughes ever off-stage. What is incredibly enjoyable, if not bittersweet about this piece is the parallel emotional journeys the audience and Katie experienced. We feel Katie’s optimism and hopefulness for her future, we want her to succeed and we think she will. After all this is theatre where anything is possible. This emotional journey the audience go on speaks volumes about the direction of Samson Hawkins.
Katie Johnstone is full of youthful energy, poignant moments and comedy and is a great addition to the Orange Tree Theatre programme. I’m excited to see what Hawkins does next.
Katie Johnstone is playing Orange Tree Theatre until 20 July 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo: Robert Day