DDF Assembly Rooms review: “truly unique and highly entertaining”

By Max Lindon

Aqua Spectacula by Jasmine Price

Aqua Spectacula  provided a highly energetic start to the evening, immersing us in the world of retro videogames with blaring 80s tunes and some epic dance moves. Shannon Burke’s protagonist was promptly named ‘Jeffrey’ after some audience participation, which she navigated confidently despite some issues with a microphone. Kenneth found herself trapped inside Aqua Spectacula, an arcade videogame with an important message about the impending threat of climate change. The game’s operating system was portrayed through Andrew Cowburn’s voiceover, ably assisted by the ‘hive mind’ of the audience.

Price successfully evoked many of the loveable quirks of retro gaming, beginning with a ‘character selection screen’ in which a variety of characters repeated stock movements. Between scenes there were ‘loading screens’ that were created through light and sound changes, in which Cowburn’s voiceover had to hilariously fill time by providing tangential facts and existentially musing on the nature of life as a robot. The stiff movements and deliberately wooden dialogue of characters such as Fionna Monk’s Mother and Freddie Collings’ Professor immediately demonstrated that we were now in an 8-bit world. The use of dance was one of the highlights of the piece, as each performer put so much enthusiasm into the tightly choreographed routines, set to pulsating synth music. This choreography was also used to great comic effect, with one clear highlight being Max Greenhalgh’s dance-moves which really have to be seen to be fully appreciated!

Amidst all of this crazy fun a narrative was unspooling about an evil corporation threatening the environment and a rare species of ‘golden coral’ by constructing an oil rig. This story served its purpose of conveying a vital message to a younger age group, but at times exposition heavy scenes, such as when Kenneth and the Professor visited the headquarters of the evil Trart Corporation, dragged the pace somewhat.

Price has developed a truly unique style that is rare in student theatre, blending an eclectic range of comedy, physical theatre and big-hearted story-telling aimed at a younger audience. It was a great pleasure to watch her further develop her authorial voice with the aid of a talented and exuberant troupe of actors.

The Adventures of Slick Tuffman: A Noir Comedy by Mike Bedigan

In his director’s note for Slick Tuffman Mike Bedigan was quick to dispel any suggestion of pretension or deeper meaning, admitting that the play was pretty much just a ’50-minute long sketch’. It is very difficult to criticise a play that’s as self-aware as Slick Tuffman, as it always seems like Bedigan is one step ahead of you. Slick Tuffman is very much the Deadpool of film noir parodies. It begins by targeting the usual suspects of the genre: misogyny, introspective renegade cops with troubled pasts – you know the rest. It then quickly ascends to another level of ‘meta’ by mocking how it goes about mocking these tropes. The result is a highly entertaining ride in which the audience is left in stitches by one punchline, only to be hit by another just as they were beginning to recover.

Luke Maskell played the titular detective Slick with fitting levels of brashness and bravado. Although Maskell’s display of his comedy chops were highly impressive, he was arguably outshone by Emily McClean as ‘Player 2’. McClean played a vast array of genre stock characters such as the enthusiastic new partner, the flirtatious secretary and the demanding Police Chief, all with great aplomb. Her comic characterisation was strong enough to easily distinguish between all these different characters, and good job too, as it was frequently tested for comic effect by the script. In one fantastically absurd scene she was forced to depict an argument in a diner between 4 different characters, an impressive feat that was acknowledged with cheers and applause by the audience.

Riffing as it did on 1920s social attitudes, the play included many jokes about women and homosexuals that were very much on the line of acceptability. For me personally they didn’t cross that line, as they were clearly poking fun at outdated prejudices rather than the groups in question, but their sheer relentless frequency means that I can see how they would be grating for some.

My main gripe with Slick Tuffman was that it lacked a bit of polish. Line issues led to some corpsing, particularly from Maskell, which the audience revelled in, but the play was funny enough that it could have done without it. Furthermore, in the last 20 minutes the play lost momentum and failed to hit the comic heights it had done previously. Having already reached peak ‘meta’, the show didn’t really have anywhere to go from there and by the end the concept was in danger of becoming a little tired.

However, these issues did not majorly detract from a show that featured two outstanding comic performances, adroitly directed by Will Bedigan, and a script with more wise-cracking than a room full of Italian mobsters.

Cloudburst by Zac Tiplady

Cloudburst followed fashion mogul Alana Marie (Eleanor Hawkins), through one afternoon at the office shortly after having discovered that she’s pregnant. Her attempts to process this momentous event are waylaid by an eclectic cast of characters who are far too wrapped up in the drama of their own lives to be of any assistance.

Tiplady’s experiments with form brought an interesting dimension to the piece. Alana Marie was introduced by a chorus (Hiba Benhamed, Millie Blair and Joe Pape), speaking in verse, that described her plight to the audience. The chorus was eager to stress that the play shouldn’t be interpreted allegorically. Indeed, Tiplady was wise to stay away from overt moralising when dealing with such a sensitive issue as pregnancy and the many dilemmas it throws up. The ‘message’ was that there was no message, and that Alana Marie’s story was merely her own. Tiplady also wove a series of flashbacks into the story that served to break up the otherwise chronological structure and to reveal the impact that past events were having on the present. These flashbacks were nicely integrated into the play by Director Talor Hanson, with humour being derived from a potentially awkward repeated transition between the hospital and the office, and instant cuts between present and future later in the play illuminating the hypocrisy of one of the characters.

Although it was not as much of a rip-roaring comedy as the shows that came before it, Cloudburst did have some laugh out loud moments courtesy of a cast of outrageous supporting characters. Savy Kyo Des-Etages demonstrated great stage presence as the ruthless fashion agent Fifi La Zampa, whilst Dan Hodgkinson hilariously portrayed the self-obsessed supermodel Hugo Beaufort. Millie Blair and Joe Pape also elicited laughs with the rather cliched characters of the disinterested receptionist Tyra, and the camp assistant Tony. Indeed, the comic performances were so strong that they threatened to overshadow Alana Marie’s personal drama, which at times failed to be as attention grabbing, although I suppose this fits with the point Tiplady was trying to make!

Hawkins gave a strong performance in the lead role, although she was perhaps guilty of overreacting at times to Fifi and Hugo’s bouts of narcissism. Her real chance to shine came at the end of the play when she finally received an opportunity to fully explore her dilemma in a duologue with Izzy Murray’s ‘Geriatric’, and she seized it enthusiastically.

Overall, Cloudburst was a well-rounded piece with an excellent ensemble cast that successfully incorporated comedic and dramatic elements. A satisfying ending to a highly enjoyable evening of theatre!

Image: DDF Production Team 

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