By Simon Fearn
Any Durham students venturing up North to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be faced with an embarrassment of riches from the Durham theatre scene. Featuring fairytales with a twist, sojourns in Discworld and a contender for Most Meta-Theatrical Play of the Year, here is what Durham has to offer:
Anna Jeary’s tale of late-night conversations between two friends was lauded as an ‘adroitly written’ piece which ‘entertainingly dealt with some hefty topics’ by Palatinate Stage when it premiered at the Durham Drama Festival. We speak to Anna Jeary about the play’s transfer to Edinburgh.
‘The biggest development for the Fringe is that both the girls will play both parts, flipping a coin at the beginning of the performance to decide which characters they’ll play that day,’ Jeary explains. ‘Although a bigger undertaking, in the rehearsal process it was great to see how playing both sides influenced their performances. It also plays in with the various themes of memory and identity, so I’m excited to see how the whole run goes and how people respond to it!’
One of the aspects of the play our reviewer singled out for praise was its ‘refreshing frank approach to female sexuality,’ and Jeary has relished challenging society’s prudishness and double standards. ‘I’m used to surprising people with the vocabulary I use (among the right company, naturally),’ Jeary expands. ‘When I was younger it was more “A girl shouldn’t speak like that” but I think now I’m much more likely to hear “That’s great! I’ve never heard a girl speak like that”. I like being a bit crude, and the idea that people react differently to it because it’s two women really intrigued me, so in the play I tried to push it as far as I could without being completely tasteless. When we performed in Newcastle loads of girls came up to us saying “That’s exactly how my friends and I speak!” and that was really rewarding.’
Small Hours clearly rings true with its audiences, and we can also expect some innovative staging. ‘The dialogue is naturalistic but the structure of the play is not – with a number of temporal shifts and repetitions,’ Jeary tells me. ‘Even though there are two girls sitting in front of you, the great thing with theatre is that people really commit to going along with you, and in this case questioning whether what you see is real.’
The combination of honest writing and intriguing staging definitely makes Small Hours worth a visit. ‘It’s funny and it’s sad,’ Jeary concludes, ‘and that’s often a winning Fringe formula!’
Until 29th August (not 15th) at C Nova
Hamish Clayton’s DDF play, in which characters stumble through farcical auditions for a play about characters stumbling through farcical auditions, takes ‘meta’ to a whole new level. Its surreal brand of humour comedy made it a natural choice to take to the Fringe, so it’s no surprise to be speaking to Clayton as rehearsals for Edinburgh come to a close.
A play about auditions gave Clayton just the format he needed as a comic writer. ‘I realised that auditions are not only comical situations but are also pretty perfect for sketch-like entertainment,’ he says. ‘They’re short and bite-sized and therefore keep the comedy fresh.’ The original run, as well as being enjoyably bizarre, was an amusing satire of the Durham theatre scene, and the new show will be filled with Fringe in-jokes. ‘All Durham references have been replaced with Fringe references, and there’s been some work on certain parts to make it even more surreal,’ Clayton promises.
Praised for its ‘constant experimentation’ and ‘sheer unsuppressed energy’ by Palatinate Stage, Auditions offers the kind of light-entertainment that will complement any day at the Fringe.
6th-13th August at Cowgatehead
Terry Pratchett’s Mort
If Oook! Productions’ annual Terry Pratchett adaptation is not enough to satisfy your Discworld cravings, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Duck in a Hat Theatre Company, made up of Pratchett-aficionado Durham graduates, are bringing Pratchett to the Fringe. Director Matthew Elliot-Ripley explains the best-selling author’s appeal. ‘For me, Pratchett’s writing really gets to the heart of the human condition,’ he says, ‘exploring hugely complex and thoughtful ideas through the media of magic and extended metaphor on a flat world sat on the back on four giant elephants that, in turn, sit on the shell of a giant space-turtle.’ ‘The stories are also littered with literary, stage, film and pop culture references, which contributes to their global appeal,’ adds producer Kacey Courtney.
Bringing to life a world drifting through space on the back of a giant reptile is no easy undertaking, but luckily Duck in a Hat come equipped with top class production values, as Courtney explains. ‘Alongside brilliant acting from some of Durham’s finest comedy and character alumni, we are a very visual company,’ she explains, ‘with a beautifully hand-painted set, fabulous original costumes and technical wizardry in the lighting department. We also have a totally bespoke soundtrack, with original compositions, written specifically for the show.’
Having made the dreaded transition from the Durham bubble to the real world, Courtney now views the DST scene from a different perspective. ‘Theatre post-Durham is a very different world,’ she says. ‘While I did a lot of technical/backstage/costume work in Durham, in reality I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve ended up working Front of House, organising people and money, rather than working directly on the productions themselves.’ The Fringe has given her an inviting opportunity to take the producer’s reins. ‘My first foray into producing was last Edinburgh Fringe, where I Co-Produced our show Terry Pratchett’s Eric, which was a surprise sell out show!’ she continues. ‘Working with Tim Foster, our writer and very experienced producer, has been invaluable, and I now have the confidence to largely produce Mort on my own.’
Whether you’re new to Pratchett or know the ins-and-outs of Discworld like the back of your hand, Courtney invites you to a show that is ‘part coming-of-age drama, part romance, part existential crisis, and wholly hilarious!’
15th-28th August (not 21st) at Paradise in Augustines.
The Princes’ Quest
It was a joy to see a student-written musical on this year’s DDF programme, and our delight only increased when we realised it was an LGBT reimagining of the typical fairytale narrative. ‘The show was first inspired by a fake news article about an upcoming Disney movie about two princes who go on a quest for a princess but fall in love with each other,’ reveals Henry Winlow, writer of the music and lyrics. ‘While the movie was never to be we got thinking that this would be a great story to tell to the world and perfectly fitting for a musical. Having recently come out, me and my ex-partner Sophie [McQuillan] felt that working on a project like this with each other would be a fantastic thing to do.’
The aim for Winlow was to create ‘a fairytale for people who don’t always get them written for them,’ turning an audience’s assumptions about fairytales on their head along the way. As the ‘extremely collaborative’ rehearsal process continued, the musical also developed a feminist angle. ‘While an ending and arc for the male characters was established early on, we didn’t want to leave the female characters’ stories unfinished or unsatisfactory,’ Winlow tells me. Director Olivia Race expands, saying as the team rehearsed they were ‘focusing on the characters of the female parts to ensure we found a consistent character arc and development.’
Aside from its clever reworking of some rather staid fairytale clichés, The Princes’ Quest is also worth seeing purely because it’s a lot of fun. Winlow is hoping that the show’s ‘comedy and catchy music’ will draw audiences in, adding that ‘one of the creative aims of the show was to reflect elements of traditional fairy tale musicals such as Wicked and Disney films, and contrast them with the less traditional elements of the story.’ Whether the cast are challenging hetero-normative assumptions or belting out a camp duet, The Princes’ Quest is sure to bring a smile to your face.
Until 20th August at C cubed.
Not everyone can see the tragedy of our generation reflected in the trials and tribulations of a slightly naff boyband – aside from Nikhil Vyas that is. His DDF play The Lizards was described by Palatinate Stage as ‘an interesting riff on the modern fame factory that churns out stars just as quickly as it forgets them,’ and is likely to win similar acclaim in Edinburgh.
‘My housemate told me about a memorable experience from her hometown: when visiting her local supermarket, she’d bumped into an old X-Factor boyband performing in one of the aisles there,’ explains Vyas. ‘While at first the idea struck me as hilarious, the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was a story there. Boy bands are maybe the iconic musical phenomenon of our era, a perfect expression of what fame and fortune means in the Instagram generation. And as a result, I felt they were the perfect tool with which to explore deeper ideas of success, failure and growing up – which forms the bedrock of The Lizards’ story.’
As Vyas was researching and writing, the tone of the play began to change. ‘When I first started writing, the play was pretty much a straight up satire – my main intent was to ridicule the band and its members,’ Vyas continues. ‘Yet as I researched the wider industry more, as well as the reflections of former boybanders, I started to grasp the deeper themes that would often form the core of their lives: addiction, depression, self-esteem issues to name a few. And so their world stopped feeling so alien, so removed from ours. I felt that to make something that had a bit more honesty, the play would need to try and reflect the reality of what life in the music industry really involves.’
With a new cast that have approached the characters ‘in ways that are completely original,’ Vyas and his team seem set to replicate their Durham successes in Edinburgh.
15th-20th August at theSpace on the Mile.
For their annual Fringe offering, DULOG opted for Ushers, ‘the “stagiest” musical being performed currently’ according to director Tom Mack. ‘It focusses on the familiar clichés of the doe-eyed, fresh out of drama school types, the theatre super-fans and the failed actors, and bombards the audience with a plethora of theatrical references,’ Mack expands, stereotypes familiar to anyone with an interest in theatre and performing.
Does Ushers question whether we neglect front of house staff, despite seeing them every time we go to a show? ‘While it is primarily escapism (who doesn’t love a good tap number am I right?), Ushers does prompt the audience to consider the lives of the people that they will always come into contact with whenever they go to the theatre,’ Mack responds. ‘These ushers have their own aspirations and desires and you never know to what heights they could rise in the future.’
In the vein of escapism, audiences can expect many of the classic hallmarks of musical theatre we’ve all grown to love. ‘The musical clichés from typical love ballads and romantic songs can be heard, particularly in ‘Half Finished Story’ and ‘Dreams and Ice Creams’,’ Mack tells me. ‘The challenge is to find the balance between keeping the humour of the show, with the integrity of the musical numbers. Another challenge with Yiannis Koutsakos’ score is some interesting use of rhythm and metre, particularly in ‘Welcome’ with frequent changes between 6/4, 5/4 and 4/4. These have all been challenges which we have loved throwing ourselves into, in our experience of this new musical.’
With all this in mind, Mack is confident that Ushers will perform well at the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘“Ushers” is packed full of moments for audience interaction with the cast,’ Mack concludes, ‘and the endless parodying and satirising of West End and Broadway theatre will undoubtedly appeal to a Fringe audience.’
Until 19th August at C.
Described as a ‘masterpiece’ by Palatinate Stage, director Henry Fell puts Rumpelstiltskin’s success in Durham down to collaboration. The cast devised the script during the rehearsal process, for Fell ‘one of the best ways of writing, as the script is not limited to only one writing style. The ambiguity of Rumpelstiltskin as a text gave us free reign to take the story in a direction of our choosing. I personally find a moral hard to unwind from within the story and for this reason it is very open to reinterpretation.’
So in what directions have Fell and his team taken the popular, and slightly creepy, fairytale? ‘Initially I wanted to highlight the rift between the polar opposite social classes represented in the text,’ Fell responds, ‘which I chose to highlight through the king’s court showing an utter detachment from reality, highlighted in the song Going To See The Poor. As the piece progressed, another aspect that developed was the personal growth of the Daughter, from helpless and at times childishly ignorant to the forceful and dominant character she becomes.’
Fell is marketing Rumpelstiltskin as a children’s show, but this shouldn’t put off older audience members as he explains that he has aimed to keep the show’s appeal as broad as possible. ‘We never made a conscious effort to ‘dumb down’ the performance for a younger audience,’ he says. ‘Instead we focused on physicality – both individually and as a cohesive ensemble – to create images that would hopefully appeal to all ages. In this way I hope that, were we to remove all the words from the performance, the trail of the story could still be easily followed.’
With a fun steam-punk aesthetic from costume designer Danielle Oliver and Fell describing it as the best show he has worked on in Durham, one can be forgiven for expecting Rumpelstiltskin to do rather well at the Fringe. ‘Adapted Fairy tales are a growth area, thanks to amazing companies such as Kneehigh Theatre, and I believe it’s still an interesting medium that can attract both regular theatre goes and the less thespy,’ Fell concludes. ‘This is the most fun I have had during a production and if we can translate the energy on stage to publicity on the Mile we should have no trouble attracting audiences.’
15th-20th August at Paradise in the Vault.
Also from Durham
The Durham Revue will make their annual trip to the Fringe with a reworking of their sketch show Gigglebox, described by Palatinate Stage as managing to ‘delight and bemuse’. The group’s notoriously surreal sense of humour will be unleashed on UK and US TV programmes. You can follow the Revue’s antics on Andrew Shires’ blog, a deadpan and very strange account of performing at the Fringe: https://andrewmwithaview.wordpress.com/.
Until 28th August (not 16th) at Underbelly, Cowgate.
Foxglove’s theatres adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess is also adapted and directed by Durham alumni, and features graduate Izzie Price as Sarah Crewe, a model Victorian child who is faced with dire straits when her beloved father dies and she becomes a penniless orphan. The show is fresh from a run at London’s Theatre N16, where it was lauded by London Theatre11 who were ‘in awe of such an amazing amount of talent in one small space.’ All bodes well for a successful Edinburgh run.
9th-29th August at C cubed.