By Ben Willows
Durham Drama Festival is back! A staple of student theatre in Durham, it’s a week of student-written pieces, dramatic workshops, and professional judges, and the highlight of many a student’s year. And, as ever, there is an opening night; what was once Scratch Night, a night of short plays, has now become a cabaret night of sorts, with comedy, monologues, and poetry. I think this is a strong creative shift. It enables a greater variety throughout the night, and demonstrates the strength that DST has to offer.
Hosting the evening was Sascha LO, president of the Stand Society, who once again demonstrated her confidence and charm as a performer. Her material was always strong, and although the audience interaction started off hesitant, it grew into its own once two members were forced onto the stage. Sascha is an experienced comic voice, and her stage presence can only grow stronger from here.
Following up was a sequence of sketches from the Durham Revue. It may have been a consequence of performing two sell-out nights in a row, but unfortunately I found that some of the sketches lacked the usual Revue energy. Some felt too drawn out, others too short, others with an over-reliance on accent humour. However, the Prank Patrol sketch had all the hallmarks of a classic Revue gag, tied together by a deliciously malevolent Henry Gwilliam.
‘The First Classical Monologue You’ll Perform at Drama School’, written and performed by Stephen Ledger, was a masterclass in comedy, brilliantly pastiching classic acting tropes. His comic timing was impeccable, his writing somehow better, and he managed to draw some of the biggest laughs of the night through his awkward frustration and pitch-perfect satire.
Our host Sascha also wrote ‘Life Model’, performed by Millie Adams. With Sascha’s stand-up background, I assumed it would be a wholly comedic monologue, but what followed was something arguably more mature. Gently humorous at times, the monologue also touched on physical insecurities and the perception of others, tied together by an analysis of the almost voyeuristic world of live modelling. If this is from a longer play, I can’t wait to see the end product.
Millie Stott both performed and wrote the following ‘Tight Squeeze’, an often visceral look at femininity told through the focal point of tampons and periods. I thought the writing here was really strong, and offered a lot of insights into the female experience, demonstrating a real potential for her future works. Unfortunately, I felt the confidence in her writing was not conveyed in her performance, with a lack of variation in tone working against the monologue. Another performer might have been able to bring new life to an already very strong piece.
In a variation from the dramatic works, Louise Coggrave brought us her poetry, under the title ‘Harness’. It focussed on a range of emotions and topics, demonstrating panic and confusion with a constant patriarchal threat, and her use of breath in one particular section was masterful. I would love to see a proper poetry night be put on in the Assembly Rooms; it is a form of performance that has too often been ignored.
Finishing us off was ‘Shakespeare’s Muse’, written by Rory Mcalpine. Although ambitious, I felt that unfortunately the monologue didn’t quite execute all it tried to achieve, and didn’t give us enough insight into Melpomene’s mind (there was also a confusing name-drop of Oedipus going green with envy; surely Othello?). Emily Browning gave a lot of energy to the monologue, using the space more effectively than other performers, and dealt with her coughs masterfully.
Overall, the night was great fun, and showed a great breadth of student writing. In future however, the night might benefit from an overarching theme, to thread all of the pieces together. However, both the opening night – and its Library Bar social – have ushered in what will be a wonderful DDF.
Image credit: Durham Drama Festival 2022