Durham Drama Festival: Black Box night review

By Hannah Sanderson

Rose by Isabelle Culkin

The staging of Rose by Isabelle Culkin immediately set the bleak tone for the following production. Consisting entirely of two chairs, the only engaging part was the presence of Rosie Minnitt (Rose) who sat of stage whilst the audience filed in. First of all, Minnitt must be commended for remaining in character throughout – a far from easy task while the audience bustled around. Her nervous characteristics and furtive glances kept reminding them of the upcoming drama and began to build the tension, which only increased throughout the play. As soon as the play began, Minnitt sprang into action using every corner of the stage and talking in hushed, exasperated tones about the events of the past few days. The tone of her voice and her inability to remain still immediately endeared her to the audience. Although the rushed tone of voice added to her characterisation, I would warn Minnitt from speaking too fast as it could occasionally get confusing who she was talking about and who to. However, her energy and characterisation commanded the play for the first half.

The entrance of Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin (Mark) capitalised the awkward comedy of the play. Culkin’s writing about their blossoming relationship was entirely believable and reminded the audience of countless awkward encounters in bars. The actors created an entirely convincing chemistry. Tyzack-Carlin excelled in his scenes with Minnitt; however, when alone his energy dropped slightly. This can probably be explained by Mark being a much harder character to portray convincingly, containing a lot less of the nervous energy Rose exuded. Tyzack-Carlin’s definite strength was in his comic delivery, he knew exactly where to place the joke to get the maximum reaction. He was also excellent in continuing after confusing his lines, making them look seamless. However, there were occasions where his accent overshadowed his words making him hard to follow.

The directorial decision of a thrust stage gave the whole play a more inclusive feel, while it did often mean that actors had their backs to certain parts of the audience. Obviously, this is unavoidable, although I would advise the actors to speak up at these points, as words could often be lost.

The consistency of the writing towards the end of the play did slip somewhat, with the energy and intensity dropping and the whole play devolving into soap-opera. This said, Sophie Allen (Niamh) played a convincingly conflicted sister, who clearly cared deeply for her brother. Nonetheless, the speech got a little rushed towards the end and the action very stationary, making it difficult to follow and much less engaging.

The simplistic lighting and complete lack of sound helped to maintain the tension throughout. The silence throughout the black outs helped to build the pressure keeping the audience entirely invested in the next scene.

Rose by Isabelle Culkin is a very interesting play, covering themes such as sex, femininity, and the disconcerting repetition life appears to have. It is a thought-provoking piece of drama and certainly not one to be missed.

 

The Not So Divine Comedy by Freddie Drewer

Freddie Drewer’s satiric piece concerning gender standards and religion, sweetened by the injection of naturalistic humour was certainly an interesting one. Alex Hannent (Rachel) played an excellent lead, managing to be both relatable and standoffish from the start. Her stable characterisation added a lot of consistency to the slightly fragmented nature of Drewer’s writing. Although there were definitely moments of brilliance, consisting of realistic writing and punny word-play. There were also moments, especially towards the end of the play, where the energy appeared to drag and the action descended into long philosophical discussions. The scenes with Cupid (Millie Blair) were an unfortunate factor towards this. Although she was convincingly naïve and eager whilst interacting with other people, she struggled when alone onstage and became slightly stilted.

The comic brilliance of Drewer’s writing was portrayed through the character of God (Dan Hodgkinson). Although only a voice over, remaining permanently behind the back curtain, both the witty speech which played on the assumptions made by Christianity, and Hodgkinson’s expressive voice ensured that his interventions never failed to produce a laugh.

The acting was also very strong with the ensemble and slightly smaller parts. The comic duo Nicholas Denton (John) and Olivia Manning (Jennifer) portrayed a wide range of archetypal roles. They convincingly created characters, both fictional and historical. This was carried off with panache and they never restorted to the annoyingly repetitive stereotypes which are often passed off as satire. A personal favourite of mine was Ed Rees (Edwardio), whose bold and brash actions coupled with a hilarious Spanish accent never failed to make me laugh. Hamish Inglis’ (Director) close staging meant Rees spent a lot of the time pressed uncomfortably close to the audience, however this added to the comedy rather than detracted from it. The chemistry between him and Max Lindon (Moody Blues) was also convincing and they managed to complement each other by portraying two very different characters.

The use of lighting and sound worked well with the comedy, often helping to create the scene. However, it would have been nice to have some transitional music between scene changes as these could be long and cause an energy drop. Actors must also remember to remain in character during these blackouts as it ensures the audience’s investment in the next scene.

All in all, this is a light-hearted comedy, meant to be enjoyed. Although there was some confusion over lines and occasionally slip-ups, these can be easily ironed out, making the second night even more of a success.

 

Cold Fronts and Hot Flushes: The Short Stories of Kevin Spacey by Andrew Shires

One would almost expect that after watching two plays and settling down to a third that the audience would be easily distracted. Neither George Rexstrew nor Claire Forster allowed this happen. The energy blew the audience away from the start and never allowed them a break in attention. George Rexstrew convincingly played the slightly confused, tortured genius Olly, however as the plot continued his motivations became slightly confusing and less believable. It is difficult to pin down whether this was a fault of the acting or writing, as either way it was in definite contrast from the beginning of the play.

Rexstrew’s strength was in portraying the wide range of character that Andrew Shires’ writing asked for. Even his very slight changes in voice or physicality immediately created an entirely different world. His chemistry with his counterpart Claire Forster (Emily) was also excellent and it was easy to believe that they were firm friends. It was Forster, however, who stole the show, as she drew every eye when onstage. From the start, she created a lovable and relatable character whose calm yet eager personality made her endearing. This meant her moments of sudden and intense emotion utterly astonished the audience, creating bursts of shocked yet entirely genuine laughter.

The stories Rexstrew and Forster performed together were definitely the best, and it was here that the writing was also the strongest with the dialogue crafting a sense of their easy relationship. Andrew Shires’ stories managed to mix the perfect amount of comedy and awkwardness, while a lot of direction had clearly gone into the comic timing which was pulled off expertly. Unfortunately, this could not be said for the scenes which connected the stories. These were often repetitive and accompanied by a slight drop in energy. However, both actors managed to pick this up when they went into the next sketch. The in-between scenes were also aided by the set which created an entirely believable study. It is a testament to both the writing and the acting that the performance of the stories only ever needed two chairs.

This was a truly enjoyable show with stand-out performances from both actors, expertly creating the world and doing justice to the raw originality of Shires’ script.

These shows will be performed again at Vane Tempest, DSU on Saturday, 11th February at 19:00. Tickets are limited. Book your tickets here

Photograph: Facebook, Durham Drama Festival

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