first night

Durham Drama Festival 2012 - Installation Evening

Complete Immersion. Julia Loveless reviews...

 Dead Letter Office, Gareth Davies

It is intrinsically difficult to create a piece of original theatre. It is more likely that, even if you were unaware of it in the creation process, there will be an influence somewhere from something. However, on the site specific Friday of DDF, a small group of the rotating audience filed into the workshop beneath the Assembly Rooms and were treated to a piece of theatre which can, I think, be described as truly original.

Lights up on a small, intense space; letters strewn everywhere – some ordered piles, some in complete disarray. Three figures sit amongst them, sorting the post, simply dressed in stained whites and beiges but all with one thing in common: a pair of thick, industrial goggles, very reminiscent of the steampunk style. Cue a spotlight on the character placed centrally on this unfamiliar stage: a monologue begins and we are thrown in.

If I look back over my notes for the performance of Dead Letter Office it is quite amusing to see my thought process. Once I’ve deciphered the scribbled sentences, written in the half-darkness of the Theatre’s basement, I spot (and then remember) a very obvious confusion. When the play began, it was easy to feel the audience collectively frown in concentration. The monologue that starts the piece, given by Milton (William Hockedy), did not allow for stragglers. If I was to be cruelly pedantic, I would have said a little less of the husky character voice would have been helpful – if only to allow the audience to adapt more quickly to what is being said. We are plunged into a use of language which is so unexpected and poetic that it takes us all a few minutes to catch up. A retreat of human under the earth to escape a fire. A multitude of tunnels, conveyors and pipes that bring more post and food. In fact, I think it was not until a few more minutes had passed that the audience suddenly slipped into understanding. It’s like listening to Shakespeare for the first time: it took a while to adjust.

And once you had adjusted, what a language you discovered: beautifully poetic and descriptive, given with expert delivery. Frustratingly, it is something you can’t easily describe; dotted with the military NATO phonetic alphabet (charlie, foxtrot, zulu) and interwoven with simply beautiful description – here, the sky is suddenly “the flood that floats”. Gareth Davies had successfully created a language that, once tuned into, conveyed everything it needed to in perfect nonsensical verse. Harriet Tarpy as Eve was perfectly cast. She had a voice that suited this new language brilliantly and facial expressions that managed to reach past the goggles.

Separated by an unknown length of tunnels beneath the Earth, an impossibly simple story of friendship is slowly revealed. Eve and Pod find letters are recycling between them and begin an amusing and curious correspondence. Again, I’m not going to attempt a description because I honestly don’t think I could do it justice: the script was beautifully constructed, delivered and directed with clear forethought. But the highlight and, in many ways, the climax of this piece was when Eve found the courage to walk the tunnels and find this new friend she had discovered in Pod. Their first meeting was executed so beautifully in all its awkward glory as two people who had never been exposed to anything out of their daily routine – never known another being, apart from Pod’s “looksafter”, Milton. It would have been incredibly easy for this meeting to delve into the realm of romance but I am thankful and impressed that it did not. As Eve persuaded Pod to leave the bunker all was necessary was a small gesture: she took his hand in hers and they left. Simple, beautiful and completely and utterly believable. A part of me still can not quite understand how in space of 20 minutes we, as an audience, could come to love a pair of characters so much.


* * * *…and a half                    



Incognito, Michael McLauchlan

As theatres go, the Assembly Rooms are not a massive space. But depending on the piece of theatre you are aiming to put on it is vital to think about the audience’s involvement and connection with the stage and the actors on it. If I try to imagine seeing Incognito sitting in the usual audience space of the theatre there would have been such a detachment I might have struggled to dutifully keep my concentration. As it was, someone had thankfully had the inspiration to provide tiered seating on the fringe of the stage itself so the belly of the stage     became the place for action.

If you will permit me to be cruel to be kind: Incognito suffered a little from what we shall call A-level drama syndrome. Controversial for the sake of being controversial: an exploration of homosexuality in Nazi Germany, with an abusive father thrown in for good measure. But, unlike a school piece, its saving grace was an original take. The stage was split, without need for any sort of physical boundary into two sides. One was re-living the life of a Nazi officer (Friedrich) while the other was exploring a hell-like limbo state; Friedrich’s life after death.

Though both ‘sides’ of the drama were strong; Henry Morris and Michael Earnshaw creating a believable friendship, relationship and final disintegration, I was captured more easily by the left side of the stage. In particular, Elizabeth Briggs was a standout of the cast with a voice perfect for her role as the niggling shadow in the limbo. The make-up for her entity was outstanding and her poised movement was beautifully executed. In fact, apart from a few cast members struggling with naturalistic stage presence, the group was very well cast.

What is particularly impressive with this production is that Michael McLauchlan already has a very strong piece of theatre that, with a few dramatic tweaks and a bit more time to perfect, could be quite poignant. There were a few unnecessary moments of musical accompaniment and the occasional moment when my attention was not as captivated as it could have been, but all things considered, this piece had great potential.


* * *…and a half   


Satin, Sam Kingston-Jones

The only time I have entered into Old Shire Hall during my time here was at the beginning of first year to make a module change (I had got a little overwhelmed and put down a module in geology instead of geography by accident). Back then, as the Student Planning & Assessment (SPA) headquarters, it was corporate, boring and empty. So you can imagine my surprise as I wandered into the entrance hall, tailed by prostitutes and greeted by several Dickensian gentlemen, to find a building I did not recognise. Admittedly, last time, I probably wasn’t looking – desperately trying to work out where the main office was – but I believe it was partly due to actors’ energy and dedication to the piece from the moment you walked in that allowed me to see it properly.

The things to compliment about this production are plentiful. Firstly, the location and the choice of staging; a circular stage with three (tri-located) exits and entrances. For almost the entirety of the piece, the audience were made to feel that they were connected, quite literally, to the action: we were the audience of the brothel’s show – not a group of theatre goers from the 21st century. Throw away comments by James Hyde as something in the drama took a turn for the worse – “I’m so sorry, ladies and gentlemen” – were directed at us. It was perhaps this reason that when the climax of the play was reached you feel the audience communally take in a breath. The beauty of a circular stage was that I could see the audience members opposite me and was not surprised to find that the shock and concern on my face was echoed on theirs.

Secondly comes the script. I always think one of the most challenging things to write – and to write well - is realistic awkwardness; the stumbling nature of everyday conversation. Either Sam Kingston-Jones does not find this challenging or he’s incredibly good at working at it until its right. If I was to change one thing it would have been the modern vernacular. The whole piece had been constructed so carefully around Dickensian London it was disappointing to have modern tongue, profanities and clichés: it drew away ever so slightly from the authenticity. The script was beautifully constructed and, particularly towards the climax (as the girls began to realise their relative stability in the brothel was threatened by a newcomer) it managed to seamlessly reveal the true characters that had been lying beneath them all along.

Of course a good script is just words unless it has a cast talented enough to bring them to life. Satin, in many respects, was one of the best cast shows I saw at DDF this year. Steffi Walker in particular did a brilliant performance of a slightly older, more experienced woman at the brothel. Beside her, the other girls kept their characters with easy expertise as well; each one defined in a slightly different way to give a complete diversity of personalities. James Hyde, as the brothel’s owner, gave a quietly dangerous performance perfect for the character. His scene with Elise (Grace Cheatle) was one of my favourites for its simplicity, excellent delivery. In smaller, less demanding roles the other males played their cameos brilliantly: a bumbling vicar, a guilty bore, a sleaze.

I would like to think that Satin will gain large audiences this week. It’s a show that deserves to be seen, on so many levels. It is an excellent cast, coupled with a brilliant location and an expertly written script. I for one will be eternally grateful towards the production for managing to wipe clear the previous, disappointing memory I had of the place and to replace with a brilliant piece of installation theatre.   


* * * *    

Julia Loveless

26 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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