first night

Durham Drama Festival 2012 - Day 2

DDF Day Two - The Shoe Shop; Improvised Tragedy; Marshmallows; 24 Hour Musical

The Shoe Shop

Kieran’s (Luke Satterthwaite) pronouncement that this play would be full of ‘insoles and assholes’ did not immediately excite me, yet, despite this daunting prospect, the insoles and assholes made this play. Written by Chris McQuillan, the production started and ended strongly. There is a sexist trend throughout, yet, in some ways, this made me admire McQuillan more for not shrinking from the views which would probably circulate in a male shoe shop. I found the concept highly original and have always wondered why sales assistants in Clark’s took so long in the backroom!
Luke Satterthwaite makes a very endearing lead of Kieran, a frustrated shop assistant fed up with shoes and customers. Satterthwaite excited sympathy whilst also being infuriatingly incompetent. He is supported by a large and diverse cast. Ben Plumb, playing an exasperated Derek, owner of ‘The Shoe Shop’, was a little too melodramatic at times and, despite his excellent upkeep of character when he was not speaking, obviously has never shined a shoe! The tableaux, when Kieran was addressing the audience, were effective but unfortunately McQuillan had not blocked effectively so the downstage action of the store room was sometimes marred by miming upstage, and the volume suffered from this staging. The costume was well chosen for the characters, although I don’t think Lisa (Livvy Peden) particularly suits wrinkly Nora Batty tights!
The large number of characters in this show requires some actors to take on double roles and Hannah Andrews (Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Cushing) created an effective contrast between an irate customer determined for a refund and the carer of a bedridden man who wanted to buy shoes based on a trace of his deformed foot. Although Andrews was very good, she was outshone by Simon Gallow who revealed his versatility in the contrasting roles of Mr. Redgrave, a loud raving religious fart, and the softly spoken elderly widower, Mr Douglas. I did worry at first that he had been typecast after his loud performance in the Fresher’s Play, ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ but he showed that he is able to play poignant characters, as well as comic. I am unsure whether it is because of McQuillan’s writing, or Andy Gammage’s acting, but Dave ‘The Rave’ is too one dimensionally stereotypical as a Durham ‘lad’ complete with gilet and pretentious abbreviations.
Just like one of the characters, ‘I think I got a bit lost in the metaphor’ as it became unclear whether the shoe shop is meant to have a higher meaning. We should take the rough with the smooth? Interacting with people is worthwhile if once in a while we come across someone like Mr Douglas? Yet, in some ways making any such comparison is superfluous as the show was brilliant for its own right, as a well directed, written and acted piece, without needing to assert itself as a philosophical drama.
* * *
The Improvised Tragedy
Charlie Gardiner’s exasperated ‘bleurghhhhh’ struck a chord with me. Not in a Beckettian existential engagement with the meaninglessness of life, but because this tragicomedy failed to be engaging at all. Mostly because the production tried so desperately to be a medley of tragedy and comedy that it failed at both.
It was evident from the beginning that Shellshock! was desperate for laughs as Alison Ewins was doused in water whilst the audience chose which direction the improvisation should go. The audience-chosen occupations of the actors were diverse and challenging as the stage became populated by a pathologist, fireman, florist, traffic warden and a sex worker, who was unfortunately tamed into a Panda mating expert.  All the actors characterised well and developed their parts to places where others would not think to go. The company works well together and it was obvious that the entire cast paid attention to the stage whilst in the wings as motifs were developed and there were no awkward silences.
Branding itself as a tragedy, the audience chose the tragic formula of the star-crossed lovers. However, this theme did not seem to have been considered until the last ten minutes of the show with the drama focussing on ‘the legendary yellow honda’. I did wonder if the cast really knew the meaning of tragedy, or in fact tragicomedy, or were instead so focussed on maintaining their reputation as a comic improvisation act that it was not funny at all. The play was more of an amalgam of unfunny scenes. Yes there were laughs, but how many of them were struck merely by the awkwardness of some of the jokes which is what I imagine to be LARP banter.
The fireman, Greg Smith, manages to partially redeem the show, with a good stage presence and getting laughs such as when he quipped  that the car is so legendary that it ‘runs and then hits’. However, even he felt the need to apologise for a poor joke about ‘car bend dating’.
I do realise that improvisation is difficult to do, but having seen the improvised musical last term, when it is done well there are no awkward moments. Yes, there were no awkward silences but this may be because the words were awkward enough.
 ‘Marshmallows’ starts with the three boys gathered upstage around an impressive fire (kudos to the production team) with Damon (Russell Park) telling a ghost story to the dejected Luke (Michael Earnshaw). Warren (Mike Clarke) makes comic interjections, picking apart the stereotypical horror story structure. A particularly memorable line is when he revels in the ridiculousness of a couple listening to the news whilst making out, because who would think ‘I know what’ll set the mood – a bit of Trevor McDonald.’
The tone suddenly turns serious with the realisation that all the boys are dealing with some inner turmoil, and all have father complexes, in this transitional period between school and university. However, the actors subtly expressed their sufferings preventing the production from appearing a hormonal oedipal moan. Luke was played convincingly moody, yet not angsty and Mike Clarke managed to turn the seemingly minor embarrassment of not passing your driving test into a serious meditation on the expectations father’s place on their sons and the pressure sons feel to emanate, but also surpass their fathers. I found most poignant Russell Park’s subtle playing with his shoe laces, which was affecting yet did not detract from the admittance of his fear of not meeting expectations.
The play progresses from what seemed to be a shallow discussion around a camp fire to revealing the turmoil which accompanies growing up. A short play but well-acted and directed.
* * * *
The 24 Hour Musical: One Play More
I felt a bit awkward sitting in the audience with my pen and paper as the play began satirising critics as failed actors. Only Joe Leather could satirise one of the Festival’s judges, the critic Matt Wolf, whilst he was sitting in the audience and pull it off.
The setting was the interval of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s imagined last musical and the music was an amalgam of hits from his best known, and well-loved, musicals but with comically rewritten lyrics. The musicals featured were ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Joseph’, a rendition of ‘Cats’ by Julia Loveless who, despite her beautiful voice, was still believable as a cat obsessed lady.  The improvisation ended with a satire of the iconic ‘One Day More’ from ‘Les Miserables’, which became ‘One Play More’ with the Durham Drama Festival logo waved as if from the Parisian barracks as the cast advanced, ready for their next musical challenge.
The entire cast had obviously worked hard to pull of this feat in only a day. As well as Loveless and Leather, Andy Saville also stood out and I’m sure we will hear more of his amazing voice in the future.
It is hard to believe that this show was produced in only 24 hours! However, it was more of a showcase of Durham’s best musical talents than a play. It lacked a story line, becoming a medley of songs with little dialogue in between. However, it was not, as estimated by the satirised critics, ‘distinctly average to say the least’, but genuinely funny and a wonderful way for the evening of the second night of the festival to come to a close.
* * *
Rebecca Flynn

24 February 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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