Review: The Finalist Showcase 2024

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The Finalist Showcase is a staple of the DST calendar, bringing together 9 of Durham’s finest performers on the Assembly Rooms stage for one night of theatre; the 2024 rendition is utterly brilliant. Helmed by co-directors and Emily Browning, the showcase offers 2 acts of both monologues and duologues from an eclectic range of plays (and musicals) that results in a supremely entertaining evening. 

The standard across the board is exceptional, with all involved operating at a near-professional standard. Although predominantly contemporary pieces, each actor showcases an impressive ability at navigating multiple genres. Credit here, then, must be directed not only to the performers but to the directing team for the set list. Given the range of pieces on show, transitions could be jarring if not handled appropriately, but Browning and Phillips find an ingenious flow that takes us from Stephen Sondheim to Dennis Kelly, and Polly Stenham to Chris Bush. 

And it would be redundant not to mention all the performers that took to the stage: James Roberts, Louise Coggrave, Honor Calvert, Isabel Askew, Ben Lewis, Bhav Amar, Bella Chapman, Zara Stokes Neustadt, Alfie Cook. Each and every one of these talented actors displayed a breadth of dramatic talent across their three pieces that resulted in their deserved standing ovation at the end of the triumphant evening. 

and started the evening with a duologue from James Graham’s ‘Labour of Love’, instantly captivating the audience with their chemistry that pitted a reformed Labour MP (Lewis) against his constituency agent (Stokes Neustadt) in his office. Most impressive, here, is the way the two actors find moments of tenderness beneath the exasperation resulting from their turbulent relationship and thorny wit of Graham’s dialogue. At times, I would have liked more vocal conviction from Stokes Neustadt as she occasionally loses some words, but this is minor in an otherwise fantastic duologue. 

The standard across the board is exceptional, with all involved operating at a near-professional standard

Their monologues are no different; Lewis, in particular, shines with his masterful stage presence, precise movement and vocal tonality (something he has a fantastic command over) – manifested best in his laugh-out-loud portrayal of a twenties-something man, bemoaning his escaping youth after an unproductive lads holiday to “Shagaluf” in Caitlin McEwan’s ‘Thick Skin’, that had the audience in stitches from the first line. Stokes Neustadt offers an impressive versatility across her two monologues; her raw vulnerability in Rhiannon Faith’s ‘Smack That’ should be deservingly commended for handling such difficult content matter with aplomb, but it is the pure sass injected into her performance in ‘Bull’ by Mike Bartlett that is the most memorable – her changes in register as she moved between the character’s extemporaneous ramblings and the snide asides to her friend are gloriously effortless. 

This is an aspect equally employed by in her outstanding performance in ‘Bitter Lemons’ by Lucy Hayes where she plays a football goalie dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Chapman’s performance is totally organic, breathing lived experience into a complex character and changing styles effortlessly throughout the monologue. She should also be recognised for her emotionless delivery in Lulu Raczka’s ‘Nothing’ which made the description of her friend’s assault all the more powerful and impactful. 

Yet, it is clear that Chapman has range, exemplified by her nonchalance in Miriam Battye’s ‘Strategic Love Play’ (her duologue with James Roberts). Roberts is good in this monologue, displaying a sound control of emotion and gesture for the awkward character. His chemistry with Chapman is great and ensures the piece hits as intended. His monologue from ‘Kiss Me Like You Mean It’ by Chris Chibnell is equally good, although I would’ve liked some more dynamism both in terms of voice and movement as it sometimes fell a little flat. Roberts performed another duologue instead of a second monologue – ‘Julie’ by Polly Stenham with Bhav Amar – and, although his diction and lack of projection at the beginning means we lost some words, he warms into the performance, commanding the space with some deliberate and well-considered movement, and stellar emotional punch. 

Amar is great in this duologue as well; her expressive face is particularly engaging as she descends into anger, matched with some forceful movement. But her standout performance of the evening is in her duologue with Honor Calvert (‘Conversations After Sex’ by Mark O’Halloran). A major issue with duologues in general is that characters feel too one-dimensional or hollow, owning to the short time we, as an audience, have with them. Here, however, both actors wonderfully bring to life the characters in a way that feels thorough and authentic. Amar, in particular, is great at playing the narcissistic older sister, impressing with her exceptional control of voice and tone. The actors have wonderful chemistry, and Calvert shines with her more detached and disinterested temperance, bouncing off but never matching Amar’s energy in an impressively controlled manner. 

Indeed, this is a recurring trait of Calvert’s performances in the showcase; her characters are wholly dramatic, often plagued with mental health issues. I would have liked to see Calvert in a comedic piece, as it would have given her a good opportunity to present herself as a wide-ranging performer. That being said, she plays all of her roles with vigour. Her duologue from ‘Love and Money’ by Dennis Kelley with highlights her thorough ability to transition between different states of mind, be it detached or frustrated, as Cook’s character tries to crack her façade. Cook’s performance in this piece is similarly good and the two actors pair well. Cook injects comedy into this piece through his delivery, gestures and expressions, and, whilst this is fine, I think it resulted in the piece being received slightly wrong by the audience as the serious strands became comedic as it progressed. Cook is undeniably a supremely excellent comedic character actor, though, encapsulated by his monologue from Norm Foster’s ‘Office Hours’ where his upright posture and fantastic facial expressions as he comically navigates a romantic encounter received deserved laughter from the whole audience. His duologue with Louise Coggrave (‘Touch’ by Vicky Jones) is perhaps the funniest piece of the night. Coggrave is hilarious here as the older woman being pursued by the upfront Cook, and her wit and comedic talent is undeniable. 

Lewis, in particular, shines with his masterful stage presence, precise movement, and vocal tonality (something he has a fantastic command over)

This is made even more impressive when looking at Coggrave’s other pieces; although both brilliant, her first monologue – ‘Cold Blooded Murderer’ by Elisa Thompson – is particularly outstanding for its dramatic tension. Coggrave is exceptional at portraying a brutal serial killer, disconcertingly delivering each line with a jarring, but hugely effective, coldness and taciturnity that made it all the more captivating. Her posture, matched with her glorious deep voice, all aid this spellbinding performance. 

The last performer of the evening to mention is who, unlike the others, chose to sing 2 of her 3 pieces. This in itself broke up the evening a bit more, adding some more variety, and also proved particularly great because Askew is simply a dazzling singer. Her take on Adam Guetell’s classic ‘The Light in the Piazza’ is superb (as is her monologue from ‘Lava’ by James Fritz), but it’s her rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ that really takes the crown; her vocals are fabulous, and she is so expressive on stage, finding delightful comedy in every crevice of the song. This piece, in particular, highlights the directorial thoroughness – it felt like each lyric of this song had been scrutinised so as to maximise comedic effect (plaudits of course should be sent to Askew for pulling it off, as well).  

Technical elements are simple providing it is only a showcase, but Production Manager and team should be commended for the effect that the lighting (and, sparingly, sound) added to the evening. Although some lighting changes were a little late, it never detracted from the overall impact. The staging, likewise, is effective; pieces are either performed behind or in front of the curtain depending on intimacy level that further gave a nice variation to the evening’s set list. 

A deserved mention should also go to Executive Coordinator and Producer for their efforts in making the evening such a success. 

Ultimately, then, 2024’s Finalist Showcase is an overwhelming triumph, offering an evening of indisputable theatrical excellence from almost certainly some future stars in the industry.

Image credit: Durham Student Theatre

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