By Jessica Derwent
My friend and I set off to see Souvenirs last night in Cafédral. We were given a free cup of tea which made me feel homely and sat down on two huge stools. We faced a small stage scene, so close that we decided to sit on the second row to avoid being tripped over. Looking back over my notes they say things like ‘I like the pink cat,’ ‘did someone nearly die?’ and ‘am I on acid?’ I’m not sure how to write a review for Souvenirs. I haven’t seen a play like it in years really. The strangest thing was it felt really familiar; when I realised it was a student play, I was surprised because I genuinely felt like I knew the story. It reminded me of the plays that came to my school to educate us about drugs, but this play didn’t have a moral, and barely had a plot. It was like watching a Cbeebies programme with overly talented actors. It was entertaining but utterly ridiculous and meaningless. At the same time, there was something whimsical and fun about it all.
The question I kept on asking myself was ‘what is going on?’ Souvenirs tells the story of the granddaughter of a missing famous botanist, who later discovers a journal containing the location of a rare flower (the moonflower). The granddaughter and a pink talking cat journey on a boat to a distant land to retrieve said flower, in the hope of finding her grandfather. They are being followed by three mimes, who turn out to be the ministry of botanists who are after the mysterious moonflower also. There were a number of tangents that ended up making up the majority of the play. There were too many unresolved issues, like where was the grandfather? What happened with the love story between the sailor and the botanist? What happened at the end? Why was it called Souvenirs?
The real problem was the plot. It would have been much better if they had just abandoned the idea of an overarching plot altogether. I was left wondering at the end whether the cat was dead, whether it had all been a dream, and why the Moonflower was a packet of Swan filter tips and an umbrella. Although much of the production relied on improvised comedy, there was seemingly an intended plot and script, which should have been made much clearer. My favourite actor, the botanist, hardly made any jokes, and I felt her character made it too serious.
There were moments that I laughed at, especially the scene in the bar where a number of political contexts were brought in, but the comedic level peaked and troughed. But often I laughed because it was so absurd and, frankly, odd. They used a lot of random props, some of which were two pompoms which for some reason I found hilarious. Maybe because I was deliriously hot or maybe because I like pompoms. It did make me question my psychic state. I don’t know why I was laughing but maybe I am missing the point. It oscillated between mediocre acid trip and children’s TV show. I wasn’t sure which I preferred.
The acting was clumsy, and the cast (apart from Angharad Phillips) looked hot and tired, seeming as though they had been in stressful dress rehearsals all day. Similarly clumsy was audience participation, which seemed forced and lead to someone almost falling over a chair at one point. The play lacked a polished, finished feeling, ending with quick applause as the actors blended into the audience, mainly made up of friends and crew.
Although Cafédral is one of my favourite spots in Durham, it felt too small for the production, and a larger venue would have worked much better. An audience member with a particularly funny laugh quite possibly entertained me more than the play itself. I can’t help thinking I would have been disappointed if I had paid to see Souvenirs.
There’s no denying this play had talent, but it was sadly wasted on a tenuously plotted play that felt like something performed by hyperactive children on the last night of a summer camp with only a toy box of feather dusters and silly hats. There weren’t many redeeming qualities besides from the actors, which makes me feel that the play only avoided flat-lining because of their talent. The actors were really enthusiastic and believable, it was just the concept that radically failed. Had this play been watched by a classroom of children and they were asked to rate it, I am sure they would have given it five stars. In itself, it wasn’t bad, but given the target audience of university students, it lacked the sophistication, finesse and intelligence normally produced by Durham student theatre.
However, all that being said, Souvenirs did make me laugh and forget some of the drama of my life, which is surely the aim of farcical comedy, so maybe it succeeded in a strange way. Had it been part of a larger sketch or evening’s entertainment, free, and in a different venue, I might not have found myself continuously planning my escape route.
‘Souvenirs’ will be performed in Cafédral from Wednesday, 14th June to Friday, 17th June at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Wrong Tree Theatre