By Nate John
Student written productions can often be hit or miss. It isn’t rare for student theatre, in general, to err too far into the post-modern and come across as overdone, lazy, and uninspiring. Bodhi Shribman-Dellman and Barnabas Mercer’s Landing does a commendable job of standing out from the stereotypical ‘coming of age’ university tale. The play opens with all the awkwardness of move in day at the start of fresher’s week at an English university and follows the five flatmates as their year progresses.
The set was stark with five beds arranged to demarcate their five rooms, which gained a degree of life in them as the characters made their rooms representative of themselves. Most notably Luke (Ted Goodman)’s was filled with all sorts of desired goods from Ibuprofen to spare razors of which his flatmates take full advantage of. It would have been nice to see this idea fleshed out a bit more, but they did the most with what they had which is understandable. The tech itself was understated but successful. The lights did tend to favour stage right and I feel a slightly larger venue and tech budget could have gone a long way in making the close-ups a greater aspect of the play’s moments of introspection.
The Vane Tempest room in the Durham Students’ Union was a rather personal venue, making the characters and their exchanges (both with themselves and each other) seem all the more human. One minor critique is that there was little consistency with how characters interacted with the invisible walls and doors, where some characters knock and others just phase through walls. I kept getting flashbacks of my drama teacher shouting at us to be “aware of the space,” but it is slightly forgivable in a play set up entirely around the characters and their development (or lack thereof in some cases).
Now on to the actors themselves. Ted Goodman’s performance brings a somewhat introspective look to life as a devout Christian at University. His questioning interviews with the Almighty come across as genuine and heartfelt, successfully echoing the confusion felt by all first years at some point or another with varying degrees of godly devotion. Millie Blair’s August captures the thoroughly modern issues of long distance relationships and what it takes for a millennial to be happy. Millie pulls off expressing the emotional cost of open positivity and hidden self-doubt.
Cherie, played by Elle Morgan-Williams, is an all too relatable sight at Durham – the posh out of the flat social butterfly who also struggles with insecurity. Elle brings the character out to her fullest capacity, but her monologues’ writing seems a bit flat compared to those of her fellow actors. Zac Tiplady’s Ezra really comes to life with the actor’s enthusiastic and involved facial acting, perfectly delivering the wit ascribed to his character as he does a rather poor job of being a hedonist, often incapable of pleasing himself or others.
Finally, co-creator Barnabas Mercer’s portrayal of Oli – the over anxious, awkward, and unpopular one – starts off as a bit overdone but eases into the character after the initial scenes. The anthropology student who doesn’t understand people does his best to help out and lend a hand, but always feels a bit left out. Mercer really captures the frustration of the awkward among us blundering from one scene to another with an innocent genuineness that yearns to fit in.
The play moves fast, as scenes flash by revealing snippets of character and narrative as the lights fade in and out, eventually piecing together a fuller picture. The post-modernism the play is soaked in creates a notable lack of exposition dropping, insisting on realistic dialogue that often relies on the audience’s attention not wandering off. The play’s wit and quick exchanges do their part in keeping the audience drawn in and eager to learn more.
Landing achieves a degree of heartfelt subtlety often lost in student theatre. It does not exist to hold your hand and tell you a happy upbeat story. It exists to put forward its narrative and make you think, leaving me to reflect over my time at Durham and the people I have met thus far. The most disappointing thing about Landing is that not enough people will see it and I cannot recommend it enough.
‘Landing’ will be performed in the Durham Festival of the Arts’ Black Box in Vane Tempest, Durham Students’ Union from Friday 16th June at 21:35, until Saturday 17th June at 19:50. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: First Theatre Company