By Flo Lunnon
Established in 2015, the annual Durham Showcase produces a flawless exhibition of some of Durham’s finest talent, and its 8th iteration certainly carried on this legacy. The whole production oozed professional cohesion as 8 Durham finalists took to the stage to perform a selection of diverse monologues and duologues. The variety of pieces on display not only highlighted each performer distinctly but also enhanced the show in its entirety, offering the audience an ideal mix of genres, characters, and scenarios to watch and fall in love with. The lighting of this show was faultless, and so credit must go to Natasha Ali for ensuring all queues were nailed and for the unified aesthetic of the show itself.
Daisy Hargreaves opened the performance with a monologue that coerced every facial muscle ever known possible to manipulate. Eyes, eyebrows, mouth — she is master of all. Swiftly swapping from character to character, Hargreaves achieves with such skill the art of saying-without-actually-saying. Her talent at letting the audience anticipate the storyline before slamming out the punchlines was unequivocal and was an excellent start to the show that left the audience howling and engaged. Throughout the night, Hargreaves’ comic timing was completely unmatched, and her second piece provided her with the opportunity to allow her comedy to manifest through a monologue that was cast in a more sombre tone. Still funny, but a very different funny, flicking between character and situational comedy seamlessly.
Ben Smart showcased (get it?) two very contrasting pieces that showed his full spectrum of emotional capacity. From agony to heartbreak, to garishly uncaring, Smart embodied all aspects of the characters he played to a masterful level. My favourite was his second comic piece, Wink, and although occasionally I found the movement perhaps too demonstrative and unnecessary, Smart left the audience in hysterics through expertly delivered lines. Additionally, I found Smart to be one of the best performers that engaged with the texts to such a level that the narrative was never lost. His virtue as a performer is definitely his story-telling capabilities, leaving the audience hooked onto the endeavours of the characters he takes on.
Sophie Alibert haunted the stage through her eerie first piece, Girl Interrupted, that twisted the sides of her mouth down into a permanent snarl that enraptured the audience in frightened disbelief. She commanded the stage with such authority, and her smiles sent chills down the aisles of the auditorium. However, this immense stage presence was not quite matched by her second piece. Alibert was the only finalist who chose to do a musical piece that evening, singing Quiet by Jonathan Ried Gealt, a piece that is certainly not overdone within the musical theatre canon. Therefore, this was a refreshing addition to the showcase, and a great piece to show off both Alibert’s vocal dexterity and to exhibit an entirely different acting style of hers. Unfortunately, I felt that the sound choices for this piece perhaps undermined Alibert’s performance because the backing track was too quiet and thus did not match the emotional intensity that Alibert was portraying onstage. A live accompaniment or even the backing track being played through multiple speakers and a possible choice to mic Alibert would have allowed the anguish she was displaying to achieve its full potential.
One of my favourite pieces of the entire evening was Alibert’s duologue with Adela Hernandez-Derbyshire. This pairing was a match made in heaven and a joy to watch onstage. Both actors bounced off each other with chaotically hysterical energy which contrasted to all previous pieces that they had both performed. Additionally, I am in the firm belief that Hernandez-Derbyshire needs to play Hamlet one day. She demonstrated through both her pieces her beautiful style of remaining quite still and allowing all her emotions to flow through her eyes and her aptly-chosen hand gestures. Hernandez-Derbyshire is an excellent example of an actor who only moves when she feels that the character should need to, and this set her apart quite starkly at times from the other finalists in her understanding of character, journey and motivation.
Tom Cain appears to be a metamorphosing being. Every time that he appeared a new accent, a different age, a changed human. I would say that Cain was the most versatile finalist that appeared that evening but above all I admired his commitment to naturalism through all the pieces he featured. This was most notable in his duologue with Em Oliver of Pillowman, where at one point Cain raised his voice to deter Oliver’s character from approaching him. The two created the most poignant tension off this defensive yell that you could almost physically cut through, which was beautifully mediated by a tender embrace between the actors. It is so hard to build up enough tension to justify shouting onstage, especially in a few of the other finalist monologues that were displayed that evening, however, Cain must be commended on his ability to read silence and volume alongside the script and text itself.
Em Oliver started their showcase with Snowflake, a monologue that displayed Oliver’s aptitude for comedy and for quickly changing characters. Moreover, with their second piece, Oliver delivered what I thought to be the standout piece of the showcase for this very reason. Pronoun by Evan Placey was nothing short of perfection. The direction of this was so excellently simplistic and elegant. Oliver sat on the front of the stage and delivered the monologue as if in conversation with the front few rows of the audience. I felt as if I was having a one-on-one conversation with the character, rather than with an actor who in reality was addressing an auditorium of over 100 individuals. I have no idea how Oliver did it…the character they created was so truthful and it was such a profound interpretation that it brought some audience members to tears.
I always found it refreshing when Etienne Currah came on for his pieces. Whereas other finalists would immediately start when the lights came up, Currah always played with the audience before starting to speak. Especially in 10 out of 12, this allowed the audience to have a remarkable insight into the character that Currah had built even before he had said anything about the character itself. Holding an audience in suspension is a lauded skill, and to do it proceeding both of his monologues that were so distinctly different in tone shows Currah’s talent at commandeering this too. Although I thought that more could have been drawn out through the storytelling of these pieces, it is hard to deny that 10 out of 12 was not an exceptional choice to perform to an audience predominantly made up of Durham Student Theatre members. An actor’s lament performed onstage to fellow wannabee actors was a genius choice.
Last but certainly not least, Ben Willows brought tremendous waves of emotion onstage through his body language choices. From the awkwardness of Four Play that helped generate the comic anticipation, to the frustrated outburst of Death of England, Willows communicated each character through the way he held himself. Willows can carry the exact amount of tension within his frame so that it helps to precipitate the climax of his pieces expertly. I believe that this could be counteracted more effectively in this latter piece, with the great release of emotional intensity after the outburst paralleled by a similar release in his embodied tension – to see the character let go completely and become more vulnerable. However, I once again admired the commitment to the silences between the spoken lines that enhanced the suspense Willows created. His interpretation of Four Play was another distinct highlight of the night because of this, and it will be a monologue that I will add to my personal favourite repertoire.
Although I would have been interested to watch some classical repertoire alongside the contemporary, or I would have welcomed more musical interpretations such as Alibert’s, Director Saniya Saraf must be congratulated on putting together a diverse and overall incredible production. Because of the focus on the contemporary, this made many of the duologues within the show become some of the most enjoyable pieces to watch. With the actors able to bounce off of one another the energies were always spot on, and the direction was always more focussed and accurate than in some of the monologues where there was not always the necessity to have actors move around, especially in the pieces that embodied a more sombre tone. Overall, the 8th iteration of The Durham Finalists Showcase was a roaring success, and I felt as if I was in the presence of performers who I will be watching again someday on larger national platforms, remembering that I had the opportunity to pass and chat to them in Market Square Tesco and regretting that I did not get their autographs then and there.
Image credit: Joe Haydon Photography