Love and Freindship is the second of three plays to be performed at the Assembly Rooms Theatre to celebrate Durham Drama Festival 2024.
From the opening dance to the closing of the curtains, the energy exuded by Zara Stokes-Neustadt’s Love and Freindship is astounding. There’s something in the air – that excitement you used to get when the funny, dynamic supply teacher walked into the classroom instead of your normal teacher. The audience is instantly onside. It’s the likes of which I have never before seen in a student production.
Set sometime in the late 1700s, the play follows protagonist Laura (Olivia Clouting), as she goes on a conquest for love and (you guessed it) friendship, experimenting with criminality as she goes and discovering herself along the way. It’s not a deep play but doesn’t attempt to be; it’s a comedy through and through, and the audience laps it right up. Narratively, the script could have been tidied and simplified – a couple of rewrites could have made a big difference – but the writing is very strong nonetheless.
Every performance (and this isn’t me telling a white lie because it’s a student production) is flawless. And hilarious. Really. The whole cast’s comedic timing is impressive to say the least, and their aptitude for physical comedy cannot be faulted. Much of the comedy in the play is physical, actually: whether it’s Edward (Matthew McConkey) galloping around the stage or Augustus (Oli Butler) bouncing up and down as he mimes driving a car. The funniest moments, though, are more subtle. They’re the knowing glances shot at the audience, or the perfectly awkward silence as an audience member is proposed to.
Emily Browning’s direction is equally marvellous. Professionalism shines from every scene, each one exquisitely and intricately choreographed. The dance set pieces demonstrate a great cohesion between the cast but this cohesion is not exclusive to those scenes. Even in the moments that would seem on paper the simplest, the cast performs as a unit, nobody ever slipping out of character as the spotlight shines elsewhere, nobody ever ceasing to act with a charming, exaggerated energy.
Not to mention Isabella Cable’s costume design would be criminal. The quality of outfits in Love and Freindship, given the student budget, is beyond impressive, and worthy of a much more expensive production. A mention must also be given to the play’s music – whether it’s the blaring bagpiper marching around the stage during Laura’s trip to Scotland, or the Bridgerton-esque string arrangements of pop songs (including a timely ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ rendition), music is consistently and successfully used to get laughs and to add a sense of quirky grandeur to the production.
Overall, while Love and Freindship is narratively flawed, this is more than compensated for by the sheer number of laughs and the quality of the show generally. Stokes-Neustadt’s Austenian spoof would not be out of place on a far greater stage.
Image credit: DUCT Theatre Company