Durham Drama Festival celebrates its 36th year
If the play Suicide Letter Love Note does what it says on the tin, it doesn’t promise to be a particularly cheery way to spend one’s Wednesday evening. But a play written by David Head, one of Durham’s premier funny-men, perhaps suggests something slightly different. In reality, the play was indeed both pathetic and heart-warming, eliciting both howls of laughter and silence so still one could have heard the dropping of the proverbial pin.
The play begins with the introspective protagonist Jack (Steffan Griffiths), and a speech that seemed at first to border on the teenage-angst end of the emotional spectrum. However, it quickly became clear that not only was Griffiths both charming and self-deprecating enough to eliminate any awkwardness that might otherwise arisen from Head’s wordy philosophising, but that Head’s writing itself was so self-aware and intelligent that any sense of gratuitous sentimentality was blown away. The captions projected onto the back wall gave a further ironic touch, particularly being set as they were to some quite painfully poignant lyrics in the music that punctuated the scene changes. These changes themselves were beautifully handled, with simplicity and a lovely use of space.
One aspect of the play that I cannot give enough praise to is Head’s extremely rare ability to write so convincingly two sides of an argument. The scene ‘in which Jack tells Susan the truth. Ish’ displayed this to devastating effect. The audience finds themselves caught in a battle of wills, both eloquently and fervently expressed. Jack’s obsessive, idealistic, romanticised and unstable passion is so commendable, and we dearly want him to win, but it clashes with Susan’s equally forceful reality that dreams don’t perhaps turn out as we had hoped, but that happiness is still within reach if we can learn to accept it. This capacity to hold such compelling views alongside each other in a barely contained intellectual and emotional balance shows a profound maturity of thought and self-awareness on the part of the author.
The play’s ending was equally bittersweet. Thwarted in love, Jack has nevertheless learned something – that rather than a suicide note, with all its connotations of depression and discontent, the play has in fact transmuted into something infinitely more valuable – a declaration of love. Jack’s final gesture is to reach for a noose; at first I was unsure of the tone of this moment – were we meant to be shocked and distressed? Was the supreme subtlety of the last hour to be destroyed with a maudlin student stage-suicide? Head therefore exceeded all expectations by superbly undercutting this sombre scene, mentioning autoerotic asphyxiation and the fear of his family finding him dead and ‘dripping with semen’. An image which the audience greatly appreciated. Obviously.
By Rebecca Mackinnon
A World Without Words (Frances Teehan & Jonnie Grande)
Being the only main dance event within the festival, there was a fair amount of hype surrounding A World Without Words. Described by its creators as asking whether ‘dance can replace dialogue whilst the story remains’, this unique dance event firmly answered its own question.
Emma Cave as the female lead was simply stunning. Her achingly delicate portrayal of a woman betrayed by her philandering husband was difficult to take your eyes away from; both in its beauty and its tragedy and while I make no claims to be a dance critic, it was very clear that you were in the presence of something very special. Richie Wong as her male counterpart therefore had quite a tough task in gaining his share of the limelight but aside from a few slips of concentration acting-wise and not quite sharing the same level of stamina with Cave, his performance was similarly acclaimed.
Praise must extend to the entire company for their careful performance of choreographer Frances Teehan’s innovative and intricate choreography. Every new number proved fresh and detailed and never deviated into the vagaries or pretentious hallmarks of student dance. A World Without Words exuded confidence in its product at all times.
The ‘sad elderly lady reflecting on her life’ motif that was used to frame the piece was the only area that seemed a little trite but this really was the only loose end that one had the urge to trim. While it makes sense when taking into account the creators’ vision of presenting the endless replays of memory, it is testament to the strength of the piece and its performers that it didn’t need to rely on such a clichéd framework in order to succeed; it was strong enough to stand alone.
Carefully crafted, beautifully danced and with evident depth, A World Without Words will be hard pushed to find itself with a close rival for the position of jewel in the crown of DDF.
By Lyndsey Fineran
Swan Ache (Nick Arnold)
Six women, six chairs, six birdies, all united by an interest in one man. What more is needed to make a DDF play (apart from a script, rehearsals and lots of hard work)? For Nick Arnold’s Swan Ache, performed by visiting Newcastle students, not much more.
The initially strange mess of this female troop preparing for an unexpected event gained, rather like the staging of the play, more order as the matter of reuniting to watch an old friend in the ballet Swan Lake unfolded. All individually invited out of the blue from their individual adult lives to take a nostalgic trip to the theatre, the play details six old friends finally forced to confront the opportunity they had all missed, and watch as their own insignificance becomes apparent in the light of their comic self-analysis.
The script is written (and in this case performed with excellent timing) as one monologue shared by six different women, reflecting the unifying force of this unexpected event. Though sharing the script, these women performed with completely unique characters. Mirroring their relationship with the male friend at university, the climax of the play was ironically at the most static part of the event. As Tchaikovsky’s iconic score rang out through the Assembly Rooms Theatre, the individually-timed and incredibly personal reactions of each performer was so sincere, that though the audience couldn’t see what they were reacting to (and were, in fact, the focus of the girls’ reactions), one could so clearly envisage exactly what it was they were so shocked about: their transformed man, now more inspiring than any of these women who depend so much on their coffee and cigarettes to get them through their identically mundane lives. The nice under-lighting at this moment made their facial reactions more vivid.
As a student, these women didn’t offer much hope for completing one’s degree rather than chasing dreams, but these students offered an incredibly talented and nicely staged (that is, after the peculiar choreography of the opening scene) piece.
By Daniel Turner
Dust (Samuel Jefferson)
A touch of farce was brought to the proceedings by Newcastle University’s Samuel Jefferson, whose script provided the audience with the most wit, and the worst language, of the evening. The main concept of the play, of a pair of faltering friends lost within various novels, was one which Jefferson clearly enjoyed playing with, and provided many laughs.
The lead pair displayed fantastic chemistry, with Jefferson himself as the fool to George Alldridge’s straight man, and the pace and comic timing of their interactions were well-played and well-received.
Jefferson was perhaps guilty of enjoying the format of his script too much, resulting in the middle act of the play coming across as more of a sketch show than a linear storyline, as more novels were encountered and then dismissed. However, such were the two leads’ rapport that each novel was nevertheless enjoyable, and the observations made with each foray were always fresh and amusing.
Direction towards a conclusion was found through the pair’s foray into A Room with a View, where Alldridge quickly fell in love with its female lead, Lucy Honeychurch (Kate Wilkinson.) The supporting cast were at their best in this setting, their characters given slightly more to play with, and Harriet Haynes gave a particularly strong performance as the matriarchal Miss Bartlett.
Though the conclusion was perhaps a little contrived, the change of pace brought a good variety to what was a sharply-written farce, and the last scene fittingly belonged, as did the rest of the play, to the main duo.
By Edmund Massey
Waiting for Dogfish (Ellen Diver)
Responses to Waiting for Godot usually fall into two broad camps; one that hail it as a work of theatrical genius, a revolutionary mediation of time and the notion of drama itself and the other that regard it as the most painfully slow evening one can have at the theatre. (Heckles of ‘hear, hear!’ in response to Estragon’s line “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful” aren’t unheard of in its production history.)Of Godot I regard myself a firm member of the first camp; of Ellen Diver’s Beckettian style play, Waiting for Dogfish, my position is lot more hazy.
A brother and sister find an unusual fish in a rock pool, identify it as a Dogfish, decide that it shouldn’t be there and that it will die unless they get it back into the ocean where it belongs. The premise is promising; ideas of how decisions (or non-decisions) define us and what lasting effects they can cause.
I’m not about to attempt to sum-up Beckett’s ethos in a 300-word play review but forgive me for saying that I don’t entirely see the obvious link at work here. While Beckett does deal with concepts of inertia and his characters engage in lengthy dialogues as to what to do, the overarching philosophy at work is that human agency is largely illusory and the concept of a ‘decision’ therefore is similarly so. As such, it seemed rather ill-suited to present a piece about decision in such a framework.
So although an interesting premise, the Beckett link seemed a tenuous one to place the play upon and while you could see what Diver was trying to achieve, the end result was a little clumsy. While Beckett fans may have felt a slightly nerdy sense of excitement at spotting the first ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, by the third time this was said it began to feel a little wearing. Just having two characters in a barren, timeless setting exchanging circular dialogue does not make it Beckettian.
The story was nicely played by its two actors but I couldn’t help feeling frustrated at the playwright’s choice not to forgo the thorny literary references and just rely upon her own voice. I could be missing a work of genius here (like some of Beckett’s own early – and now egg-faced – critics did) but by the end I’m afraid I found myself with a chair in the second camp.
By Lyndsey Fineran
The Box (Andy Kempster)
Each year, Durham drama Festival prides itself on offering students the opportunity to experiment with abstract concepts through new writing. Few have approached the challenge as fearlessly as Andy Kempster. His musical, The Box, is a particularly courageous piece of writing based around the image of one man’s entrapment in a metaphorical box. The opening is strong as two comperes feed the audience ambiguous clues as to the nature of the box itself.
However, despite initial intrigue at the box’s conception, its mystery is never fully developed and by the play’s conclusion, the image of the box proves itself to be little more than an isolated metaphor.
Instead, the tone of the piece oddly shifts towards naturalism. Our two comperes reveal themselves to be emotionally tied to the protagonist and the story plays out as a relationship drama. The dialogue is successfully authentic and entirely believable but this again is only half developed and the plot never moves past anything more than inconsequential.
The songs, however, allow the piece to reach to a higher level. Whenever sung, the language suddenly gains satisfying emotional resonance (particular praise here to Sarah Peters who channels the desired emotion directly into the hearts of every audience member). Although the accompaniment is not as passionate, it never detracts from the power of the music in the songs, which tells a story in itself.
Unfortunately, the story of the music is different to that of the plot, making the play slightly muddled. In isolation, each aspect of the play is successful but, in attempting to combine them in the space of 25 minutes, the writer fails to do justice to any – a sad reflection considering the emotional potential of the piece.
By Sam Kingston-Jones
Steve And Then It Ended (Adam Usden)
What to do when the apocalypse unleashes just outside your kitchen window? Cherish the last moments with your loved ones? Free the pets? Utter a quick prayer? Wide off the mark, according to Adam Usden’s widely acclaimed play Steve And Then It Ended, in which we witness three soon-to-be-six-feet-under characters serve cheesy chips, muse about jaffa cakes and deal with aftermath of their love-affairs. This way, the play sketches what would be a truly hilarious picture of an end-of-the world scenario, were these almost absurdly funny moments not so methodically undercut by ones of poignancy and emotional depth.
The ‘ultimate crisis’, never explicitly named and only revealed to the audience in terms of its effect on the characters (they anxiously watch reports on television, shriek when the light suddenly goes off and refer to their imminent death, hinting at the approaching disaster), is not only paralleled by but almost overshadowed by the characters’ inter-familial turmoils. While the world outside is coming to an end, the world inside is not looking much better: Steve’s (Gareth Davies) marriage is in danger of coming to a close (he is cheating), while teenage son Stan (Paul Moss) is about to break free from the parental nest.
Tessa Coates’ portrayal of a mother’s clinging to her family’s love oscillates between interminable strength, unsettling tension and quiet fragility, which more often than not leads to a conversation about fish fingers and baked beans. It is exactly this tension between the comic, the tragic and the mundane which gives Steve And Then It Ended its special note. When Stan, surrounded by shabby furniture, philosophises about the origins of the earth with verbal lightning speed, both our knowledge of its coming to an end and Moss’ amusingly detached unwinding of facts pull us towards both the comic and the tragic, never allowing such a simple distinction, but rather opting for the realistic.
And although Davies’ ‘common-man’ accent might have gone a little over-board at times, it is safe to say that Usden has here admirably managed to convey even more than a realistic image of human behaviour in times of crisis – he has created a real one.
By Kathy Laszlo
The Secret Policeman (Matt Urwin)
A world where the religious are treated as fanatics, where potential terrorists are hunted down and stripped of their rights and where questions are not asked, “It all just seems so normal.” Matthew Urwin’s new play shines a mirror at modern society and forces us to re-evaluate our role in the social order and the effect that has on others. As a first play this is an astounding piece of social comment and human insight, with an adept handling of the issues at stake and expertly constructed dialogue.
The five cast members gave very strong performances, each relationship beautifully balanced. Tom (x) as David Carver was every bit the former accountant drowning in what he has become and his scenes with each of the other characters were in turn dark, comic and harrowing. Olivia (x-x)’s portrayal of Helen was a powerful development from youthful exuberance into strained forbearance and her final scene, as she threw herself at David, was a fantastic release of built-up tension. The estranged Louise’s mental state was delicately handled by Kate Hunter, whose natural change from collected serenity to weeping breakdown was striking. Fergus Leatham as the cold and focused Samuel was assured and threatening, while Felix Stevenson played C7 with a compelling mix of the determination of a fighter and the dejection of a prisoner without hope.
Though there were times when I felt the production could have done with more rehearsal, the simple set was effective. The changing of a painting to denote location move was a subtle touch and the sparse furniture on stage served to accentuate the feeling that this could be anywhere, anytime. Greater variety in lighting would have enhanced the production, but given time constraints, what was used was certainly not problematic. Overall this was an excellent production of a brilliant work, that I hope will be the first of many.
By Claire Read
Shellshock! (Durham Improvised Comedy)
“What kind of man would kill a whale with a toothpick?” The answer to this question, posed (rhetorically) during a scene, would be: Probably the kind of man who would go to see Shellshock!, the Durham Improvised Comedy Society’s performance group, performing as part of the 2011 Durham Drama Festival.
Set within the intimate Empty Shop venue inside The Gates, the performance was staged in a sort of ‘game show’ arrangement. With the hour-long show divided into different ‘games’ with titles such as ‘Pick-up Lines’ and ‘Scene from Nothing’, the performance was reminiscent of other improv. TV shows such as ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ and ‘Mock The Week’. Audience participation was a key feature, and to their credit the majority of the 15-odd strong spectators stepped up to the plate, responding good-naturedly, imaginatively, and at times ironically to the host’s requests ranging from ‘a place and location’ to ‘a mundane thing for the actors to be building’ (to the latter of which a particularly sardonic member of the audience called out, “friendships”). The actors seemed like confident and comfortable veterans of the improv. system, and looked like they were very much enjoying themselves.
What this performance of ShellShock! seemed to illustrate particularly well was the time-old maxim that humour is very much a matter of personal taste. Where one person might fall off their chair laughing at the sight of an actor wordlessly trying to…‘entice’ an ‘imaginary armoured whale’ whilst pretending to be underwater, another might not quite appreciate the full comedic value of this – actually, scratch that, absolutely everyone in the audience was laughing during this scene; whether with it or at it is another question entirely though.
As reflected by the relatively low turn-out, this performance ultimately catered to a niche audience – but the people present who did subscribe to ShellShock!’s particular brand of humour absolutely loved it.
By Nicole Chang