Durham Drama Festival Strikes Again
The DDF always promises an interesting and varied week, and we were set to expect some top quality theatre.
Four reviewers give their accounts of a night at Durham Student Theatre’s biggest and most exciting event of the year
Wednesday – Hugo Soul
RATHER LIKE THE sixth series of Big Brother, the opening night of the 33rd annual Durham Drama Festival managed to pull in the crowds despite having very little to offer the viewer.
Frankly, it was a disappointing start to an event that is eagerly awaited by Durham audiences. I didn’t manage to see much else at the Festival: I can only hope that the standard was a little higher on the nights that followed my own experience on Wednesday, which was distinctly below-par.
Hild Bede Theatre’s The Bald Prima Donna was the best of a bad bunch: a reasonable interpretation of a classic piece of the Theatre of the Absurd genre. With an attractive set and clever script my hopes were high. Sadly, they were dashed by performances that demonstrated a failure to engage with either the genre or characters.
With some notable exceptions, one couldn’t help but feel that the (not inconsiderable) effort that went into the production was directed largely at learning lines. Some judicious cutting might have made for a tighter production and allowed for more time to be spent on character work.
Still, the show made for an entertaining hour of theatre, although how much of this was due to anything other than the witty script I’m not sure.
No Theatre Company followed with a production of Alex Eccles’ own A Midsummer Night’s Space Odyssey. I can’t tell you whether this was either good or bad, largely because I couldn’t hear much of what was said. This was partly due to some rowdy audience members, but mostly because Eccles chose to have one character speak entirely through a computerised voice, rendering comprehension impossible.
The costumes looked as though they’d walked out of a 1950s science fiction B-movie (which, I think, was the point) but were wasted on characters who had no lines and who simply stood on stage looking (how to put it?) very odd. Any humour in the script was lost on me, and judging from the audience’s reactions, I wasn’t the only one.
The Improvised Comedy society finished the evening off with some rather weak ‘games’ involving audience participation – one got the impression that there were a number of elements that weren’t particularly improvised and I’m not sure if there was much comedy either.
Their attempts summed up the evening to some extent: a valiant effort, let down by poor execution. For the opening night of what is widely regarded as one of the highlights of Durham’s theatrical calendar, there wasn’t much to feel excited by.
Thursday – Izzy Arundell
THIS SICK MASQUERADE was performance poetry being read over the top of music by Brian Enro with a smoke machine cranked up to the max.
It could have been a cringy piece, however David Richard’s understated delivery provided an interesting contrast to the language he was reading: ‘the silhouettes of wolves in clothes dousing themselves in physical pleasure and musk frenzy in the dark’. The accumulation of these phrases made you lose all sense and meaning of the plot, creating a pleasant, soporific effect.
The Age of Consent was written by Peter Morris, who won the Sunday Times Playwriting Prize 2001, and directed by Neil Wates. It was a Talking Heads-esque act consisting of two characters who alternated using the stage. Stephanie, a single mother played by Liz Smith, successfully had the audience cringing at phrases such as: ‘There are three T’s in entertainment, Talent, Teeth and Tits’. Her performance was energetic, with a non-stop flow of speech. However, she remained a caricature rather than someone you actually came to understand and like.
Timmy, played by James Elliott, seemed to be based on one of the boys who murdered Jamie Bulger. Elliott constantly kept the audience on edge through his contrast of activity, one moment slumped in his chair despondent, and then suddenly leaping forward to the front of the stage, his erratic gestures imploring the audience to understand him. A teddy bear, which he had made in a DT class, was well used in an incredibly disturbing scene, as he almost cradled it (‘It is beautiful because it is useless’). Elliott powerfully portrayed the character as vulnerable, not a one-dimensional tabloid monster.
Painted on the Frame was an extended dialogue of intellectual and philosophical musings, acted out by two unlikely characters partnered up in a mental health ward. Elizabeth, the old lady and ex-housewife played by Naomi Sclar, and a young doctor, Graham, played by Jamie Sloan, whose dialogue was broken up by the symbolic covering of a blank wall in paint, interspersed with quips about Jackson Pollock. Although this had some interesting subject matter, it was too long and the actors struggled to keep it alive with their stilted dialogue.
Friday – Rian Paul Doran
ARIZONA BAY Productions’ Sketchy Beast roared onto The Assembly Rooms’ stage with a mouth full of razor sharp sketches to chew-up, swallow and regurgitate every last taboo: yes, even the blind and that most funky of crimes – rape.
The cast all proved themselves accomplished and talented comedy performers. In particular, Sarah Holden-Boyd’s virtuoso performance as a bizarre menagerie of characters having a brawl was hilarious if a little scary. Adam Blampied’s direction was tight and slick, although some of the sketches might have been omitted to maintain the excellent pace.
Next came Nobody Here But Us Chickens. In contrast to Sketchy Beast’s rabid bite, the comedy pecked at the audience with a few meek references to cocks and being a chicken. It would be most unfair to throttle Bailey Theatre Company for many of the shortcomings – Peter Barnes’ ambitious yet rather bland writing could definitely have benefited from a bit longer in the oven and a lot more seasoning.
Despite the material, Ben Salter and Michael Umney both gave confident performances; however Becky Udy’s direction was a little underdeveloped and uncertain. The opening moments of the play demanded a much stronger sense of conviction to establish a comedic tone, and so the satire was left feeling distinctly bashful.
The evening concluded with Donnchadh O’Conaill’s This Must Be The Place. O’Conaill clearly has an exceptional ear for dialogue and a flair for dramatic characterisation, with Ian’s (Adam Blampied) acerbic interjections reducing Richard’s (Nick Robson) intensity to a sweet bathos. Oscar Blustin’s direction facilitated the three actors’ flawless performances; bringing an effortless reality and dynamism to the production. Unfortunately, the action of the play was not realised with quite the same skill. The episodes from Richard’s novel needed a more direct and disciplined correlation with the central action to effectively develop the play – they seemed to waste a lot of the theatrical potential and reduced the impact of the production.
Saturday – Otto Rich
I MUST ADMIT to having some reservations prior to taking my seat in the Assembly Rooms to watch Life Song, the first offering of the festival’s final night and an original piece of writing by experienced Durham director Alex Carey.
Despite Carey’s wealth of experience and the talented team she’d pulled together, I knew from the programme that any five-man show promising to explore not only “music and words” but also “love, faith, betrayal and sexuality” through song and interpretive dance all in just one hour was going to be a tall order.
The cast gave the complicated script an extremely good go. The plot tells the story of Pete (Matt Johnson), a musician who looks back over key moments of his life, while he and his boyfriend (Ben Starr) attempt to compose a song (the music beautifully composed by George Dyer).
It was an extremely ambitious project which was at times hard to follow due to the complicated, somewhat verbose script; luckily the scene changing and lighting were superbly conceived and executed which somewhat made up for the confusion.
Performance wise, all the actors gave extremely moving portrayals of their characters; particularly Starr in a powerful scene where he convinces Pete to stay with him, and Clare Brenton, whose slightly unenthusiastic performance was more than made up for by her spectacular singing voice. Ben Skinner and Lily Howkins provided wonderful background dancing, meticulously choreographed by Howkins and David Kreysa.
Dyer’s music, and the atmospheric set, really was the highlight of Life Song. And I think adjudicator Giles Ramsey’s comment that the production “pulled off more than it didn’t” is a tribute to Carey’s ambition and original artistic vision. With more rehearsal time and a clearer, less philosophising script, Life Song has the potential to become a great piece of musical theatre.
Light relief from all this was provided by The Saturday Night Takeaway, in which two teams were given 24 hours to put together a devised piece using themes given to them by the audience on the previous night. First up the 5 members of Team 1 ranted all together at the audience, though each at different parts of the auditorium and rotating so as everyone heard each the character’s stories amongst the cacophony. Was it some sort of murder? Or were they playing characters from Cluedo? Not sure, but it certainly made for a highly amusing 20 minutes.
The night was capped off by a witty farce of a certain piece of student writing from last year (think gritty life of last year’s DST president, turned around by theatre…) entitled Young Odyssey. (For those of you not familiar with 2006-07’s round of student theatre; the two plays alluded to were Mark Quartley’s Young Macbeth and his own piece, Odyssey.) Again it was hard to follow at times, but that was part of the fun, and it had some raucously hilarious lines (“You want to perform the Odyssey? Which version: Quartley or Homer?”) which provided a perfect round-up for DDF: an ambitious festival which at the same time tries not to take itself too seriously.