Durham Festival of Arts preview: 11th-16th June


Coming up in the next six days: Shakespeare, Sesame Street and extreme violence!


Changes; 7:30pm and 9pm 11th June; Empty Shop

If you’re a musical theatre fan after something a little different, Tone Deaf Theatre Company’s devised piece Changes: A Song Cycle may be just the ticket. The musical ‘explores the growth experienced in a human life, what aspects of the self you take with you or choose to leave behind,’ according to director Shona Graham. It’s Graham’s first time directing, and for her Changes is ‘a wonderful – if slightly ambitious – first project. I had always been interested in directing but had thought that I didn’t want to do it without offering something new.’ Aside from being something a little out of the ordinary Changes offers ‘gorgeous 4 part harmony, adults playing kids and Harry Adair doing the can-can.’ Not to be missed!

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American Buffalo; 4:30pm 13th-14th June; Pemberton Buildings, Palace Green

American Buffalo has a special focus on business and the fundamental economic principles upon which society is built,’ explains Liam Gill, director of Phoenix Theatre Company’s upcoming production. Audiences can expect a probing analysis of what Gill refers to as capitalism’s ‘success in creating an economy which works for us all,’ but the play is not as strictly cerebral as it sounds. ‘On a more superficial level the play also includes more violence than most other plays,’ Gill tells me. ‘It is a very blunt play, meaning that in addition to much cursing there are elements of sexism, racism and homophobia.’ Not for the faint hearted then!

Gill’s production is also ‘unlike any other performance’ in his casting Angharad Phillips as Teach, who is usually played by an elderly man. ‘I think we’ve managed to keep the essence of Teach whilst giving her more feminine characteristics,’ Gill tells me. ‘Luckily Angie is the perfect actor to bring my interpretation of Teach to the stage, her performance is an incredible creation for a strong female lead.’ Head down to Palace Green for capitalism and violence with a difference!

Book your tickets here!


Four Minutes Twelve Seconds; 7:30pm 13th-14th June; Pemberton Buildings, Palace Green

Following each performance of American Buffalo, Pitch Productions brings us James Fritz’s acclaimed 2015 play Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, a shockingly current exploration of the damage wrought by a compromising video that appears online. Fritz is an up-and-coming playwright who proved popular at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Ross and Rachel, and director was drawn to the moral ambiguity of his first full length play, which premiered last October. ‘It’s definitely the kind of play which doesn’t offer up any answers,’ she expands. ‘The cast have been discussing how it’s not the kind of play for an audience member who wants closure.’ The piece is also unusual in the absence of its would-be protagonist Jack, but for Culkin this gives the action an interesting and much-needed shift in focus. ‘I love the fact Jack is never onstage,’ she explains. ‘By doing so it shows how the story of any action or event is less about its perpetrator and more its effects on the people around them.’

Aside from the exciting contemporary writing, Culkin is also excited about the show’s ‘black box’ performance space and the opportunities the venue gives for a different kind of theatre. ‘It’s made the actors so much more aware of their stage space and conscious of what they’re doing,’ she tells me. ‘It’s been quite refreshing not to be reliant on an elaborate set design and lots of props. The limitations have basically made us think about how to stage the play in the most simplistic yet effective way.’ Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, then, is the ideal way to enjoy some refreshingly stripped back modern theatre in contrast with the more tech-laden fare of The Assembly Rooms.

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Avenue Q; 7:30pm 15th-17th June, 2:30pm and 7:30pm 18th June; The Assembly Rooms Theatre

Any DULOG show is likely to be something of an event, but their latest pushes the boat out even further with Sesame Street-style puppets. ‘Puppetry in Avenue Q has been simultaneously one of the most exciting and daunting aspects of the show,’ admits director Matthew Elliot-Ripley. ‘While Durham has plenty of very talented performers, not many have ever had the chance to use puppets in a theatrical setting. Seemingly simple things, like how to have a conversation with a puppet standing next to you, have been much more challenging than anticipated! On the other hand, the mere presence of the puppets, with their cartoony faces and noodly arms, allows the actors themselves to be a lot larger than life without seeming out of place, and this has been really fun to explore in the more outrageous moments of the show.’

Aside from a rare opportunity to see puppetry grace The Assembly Rooms, Avenue Q is also a curious hybrid between the naivety of children’s TV and a less-idealised adult world. ‘Kids’ TV teaches us that we are all special and we can achieve our wildest dreams if we hope strongly enough, but the central theme of Avenue Q is actually pretty dark: most people aren’t special and your dreams won’t come true just because you want them to,’ continues Elliot-Ripley. ‘While the Sesame Street aesthetic of the show reminds the audience of the innocence and vulnerability of childhood, the characters have to reconcile these optimistic lessons with the harsh realities of life, such as money problems, discrimination and poverty.’

Nevertheless, audiences should certainly not expect a brooding meditation on the harsh realities of the adult world. Aside from being ‘a poignant piece on the struggles of growing up,’ Avenue Q is first and foremost ‘an outrageous comedy starring Gary Coleman and live puppet sex!’

Book your tickets here!


Much Ado About Nothing; 2:30pm 16th-17th June; Fellows’ Garden, Durham Castle; and 1:30pm 19th June, Ushaw College

It’s time for the return of a time-honoured tradition, Castle Theatre Company’s Summer Shakespeare Tour. This year, CTC are performing Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Director is thrilled to be involved. ‘It’s Shakespeare at its funniest, and it’s been a blast to rehearse out in the sun every day and actually laugh about the lines ourselves,’ she says. ‘In taking our tour to America, we are taking a slice of British history across the pond and that in itself is very exciting!’

Aside from the fun in the sun, however, Barton and her team had the challenge of putting a new spin on an oft performed text, and have opted to transfer the action to 1940s Britain. ‘We are grounding it in a pivotal time in British history,’ Barton explains. ‘This is especially apt when you consider the continued growth of powerful women in the men’s absence during the war; a perfect comparison for Beatrice’s sassy disposition throughout. We have tried to emulate the post-war euphoria in the show as well, in order to truly emanate a 1940s garden party.’

When asked about the play’s continued relevance, Barton opts for a tongue-in-cheek but very apt response. ‘The whole show is about gossip, correct or otherwise, that can lead to some hilarious and terrible consequences. As students, we gossip all the time! Of course, this is an exaggerated case – but it’s not entirely inconceivable.’

‘It’s a relaxing summer’s afternoon in the Castle grounds with some silly Shakespeare, picnics, Pimms and sun,’ concludes Barton. What better way to pass a joyously indulgent afternoon?

Book your tickets here!


Photograph: Gregor Petrikovič

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