Durham Drama Festival: Assembly Rooms night review

By Alison Gamble

 

Toll by Charlie Keable 

The evening’s first offering came in the form of Toll, a true story of the life of Oliver Clemence Soanes (the eponymous Toll) and his memories of the First World War. As a true story, it is undeniable that Toll bears a heavy weight on its audience. Charlie Keable’s writing was consistently engaging, ranging from dynamic war scenes, to powerful monologues. Bringing a war story to life is not an easy task, but the directors have managed to seamlessly blend scenes of dramatic action with personal moments of reflection on what it means to have been a soldier in the so-called ‘Great’ war.

Sheer talent was exhibited throughout the cast, as their range of characterization and physicality onstage was stunning. Adam Simpson’s performance as Toll is decidedly worthy of praise, as his emotive range throughout the production was notable. From his potently naïve eagerness to join the war effort; to furious rage and near passive exhaustion by its end, Simpson was adept at crafting emotions in the simplest shifts of facial expression or body language. His presence onstage was remarkable, and he should be proud of the simple intimacy he managed to create with the audience. Despite this, I sometimes found that Toll was at times hard to relate to, as the fragmentary nature of the play’s narrative meant that his shifts in character were often too quick, or hard to grasp.

However, collectively the energy of each actor was wonderful to watch, and Corinna Harrison was particularly impressive in her adaptability and range. Her portrayal of Toll’s mother was moving, and alongside Harry Twining’s paternal stoicism, they managed to create a vivid sense of family that produced some of the most powerful scenes of the play.  Meanwhile, Jasper Millard was frequently a source of light entertainment and served as a friendly counterpart to Toll’s fatigued despair towards the end. However, I found the strong Norfolk accents used throughout to be somewhat grating or unclear; at times sound effects added to this, and dialogue became somewhat indistinguishable, which undermined what would otherwise have been very well-produced dialogue.

Additionally, I was impressed by the production’s usage of sound and lighting, which transformed a simple, bare stage into a place of war and strife. From the usage of a recorded interview at the start, to an explosion that physically shook the audience, it was hard not to get invested in the simple, yet effective technical aspects of this play.

The production’s simplicities merely added to its strengths, allowing the story at its heart to be brought to life, in all its full, brutal details. I felt physically engaged from the offset, grasped by a story that was not directly focused on broader human concerns, but on the life of one man and his bravery. With its final moments and the soaring sounds of ‘Danny Boy’ filling the Assembly Rooms, I could not help but be moved by such a powerfully fitting dramatic climax.

 

Alford and the Acid Tip by Kate Lipson

Of the three productions offered this evening, Alford and the Acid Tip was, for me, the unmitigated highlight. Kate Lipson’s writing/directing was witty, and whilst not entirely fresh in parts, managed to carry a strong message without being at all didactic.

The cast was collectively hilarious, but personally, Sam Baumal and Elle Morgan-Williams gave stand-out performances. Whether they were performing a musical rendition of the Alford plea or emerging through a trap door as lethal chemicals, their timings were spot on, and hilarious to behold. But as a whole, the cast was incredibly adept in both their character changes, and in the energy they showed throughout, as they produced a veritable thrill of a play. Alford and the Acid Tip was a much-needed breather between the other productions of the evening, and this is undeniably due to the gleeful commitment the actors had invested into their performances.

But this is not to say that Alford and the Acid Tip was light-hearted; in making her audience laugh, Lipson has also provided us with great food for thought, as the production highlights the audacities of capital punishment with unforgettable flair. Baumal’s claim that “it’s more fun when you make it rhyme” reminds us that sometimes you just have to laugh at these utter hypocrisies. Poignant without being preachy, the production’s memorable moments – from a prisoner reflecting on her last meal, to a mother’s pleas for justice for her murdered daughter – allow us to see every possible perspective on the issue, whilst ensuring that we don’t take it too lightly. Further, the production was informative; while it may appear gimmicky to some, it used every bad-joke and pun imaginable to highlight a topic that is often left unspoken. Personally, I think the decision to present the topic of capital punishment through a game show was pure genius, and the gimmicks merely added to the ensuring hilarity.

Sure, the play had its hiccups – a rushed start, and occasionally timings were a bit off – but these are negligible given the high standards presented. Potentially I would have liked to have seen more use made of the staging, which generally consisted of a mounted chair bedecked in fairy lights. Whilst this chair stood as an ominous reminder of the injustices of capital punishment, it remained merely a backdrop to the action, and perhaps could have been used further. Transitions could also have done with being a bit slicker, but this did not take away from what was generally a well-oiled production, with very few concerns.

Taking on the topic of Death Row and the American justice system is no mean feat, but Lipson has managed to pull it off superbly. I was certainly doing a Wicked Witch of the West impression in one sense, as I found that I was properly cackling throughout.

 

Screen 9 by Kate Barton 

The next production, Screen 9, stood as a stark contrast from the earlier plays of the evening. Admittedly, I find it quite hard to put into words the effects of a production that left its audience silenced – but this is surely proof of the impressive level of craftsmanship that has gone into the production.

Focusing on the lives of four survivors, Kate Barton’s production is an incredibly well-researched reflection on the horrific shooting that occurred at a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora in 2012. Although based on extensive research and interview content, each member of the cast was wonderfully adept at creating a sense of their character. Intertwining monologues allowed each performer to shine, with Emma-Louise Howell and Steph Sarratt standing out as the emotionally distraught girlfriend, and the despairing, barely-coping mother respectively.

Here too, simplicity brought Screen 9 some of the most powerful moments I have seen in Durham student theatre, as the projection of a clock (and later, the names of the shooting’s fatalities) providing a looming sense of just how real and horrific this event was.  The decision to seat the performers amongst the audience gave the production an immersive quality that was hard to escape. With each survivor lit up amongst the audience, every word and slight expressive movement were brought into focus as they retold their narratives. Focusing keenly on their personal stories, this production nevertheless made the audience feel a part of it in a way that was startling and unsettling in equal measure.

With the narrative’s measured movements between time and space, Barton was given great scope to craft and collect the opinions of her survivors. Most striking was the differences and similarities these individuals shared, beyond their collective experiences of the night. One of the most surprising moments was the debate they shared on gun laws, with Sarratt’s surprising avowal of the importance of guns highlighting the entrenched ideologies of American society. Here, the talent of each performer was clear as they produced an intimate sense of their character’s survival; they forced us to sympathise with them, and it felt as if we knew each one intimately. Its final moments, with the reading of the names of the fatalities, was utterly captivating and will remain in my memory for weeks to come.

In her Writer’s Note, Kate Barton stated that she wanted to show how ‘tragedy can occur anywhere and that it changes, […] our conception of the space it took place in.’ This is certainly true of Screen 9, as I doubt I will ever feel as comfortable sitting in the Assembly Rooms again.

 

These shows will be performed again at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on Saturday, 11th February at 19:00. Tickets are limited. Book your tickets here

Photograph: Durham Drama Festival via Facebook

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