first night

Durham Drama Festival 2012 - Final Night

An epic final night for a mammoth festival. Ben Weaver-Hincks reviews...

 Just Do It

No, this wasn’t sponsored by Nike, and my bewilderment at the show’s title continued through to the curtain call. In fact, the only thing that the protagonist ‘just did’ was try to kill herself. But the problem didn’t lie in the title or even the concept of the play: the real issue is that, unfortunately, Just Do It just didn’t quite do it.

The play is a confessional of a woman who has tried to take her own life, with a lot of asides, monologues and flashbacks from playwright Rachel Brooks. The subject is potentially deeply affecting; the plot is unoriginal but powerful. However, the central character is so unlikeable that the play achieves little emotional weight, and the script is so self-indulgent that I felt I should be charging for my time as a therapist.

The dialogue has the emotional register of a greetings card: sentimental, clichéd, and oddly archaic, the language was out of keeping with the characters and attempts to be over-formal only served to highlight the play’s artifice. It quickly becomes an exercise in simile, often employing long and extended metaphors that are too opaque to be illuminating. However, despite this, the dialogue showed real moments of strength at the most unlikely of moments. The protagonist’s response to an elderly lady that her brother isn’t literally “playing with knives” but is only cutting cake, has all the colloquial menace of Pinter, and other non-sequiturs and statements of the mundane are equally interesting. These gems of bizarre and elliptical thought, however, are outnumbered by the more crude directness of “when I have a family, we’ll just be normal”, which is meaningless even as an expression of futility. Elsewhere, attempts to add interest to the script meet with varied success: one particularly notable moment is the opening, with its rap-like rhyming. Whilst this may not have added anything in particular to the script, it showed the playwright’s willingness to experiment with form, which is commendable.

The cast are generally strong, but struggle to make much of the script. Eleanor Papadimos has stage presence as a lead, but never really connects to her character, and I can’t blame her. Will Clarke and Lizzie O’Connor put in strong performances, and go some way in bringing the subtlety to the performance which the script often lacks, but are unable to rescue it.

After a visually arresting opening, the play moves between a number of places on stage. It utilises the stage’s depth, blurring boundaries in a manner appropriate to the indeterminate relationship between dream and reality suggested by the script. However, the removal of props during scenes is a real distraction, and the play could have been drastically improved by some more careful planning in this regard.

Conceptually, Just Do It has promise, and you can tell that the actors are doing their best with a script that eludes naturalistic delivery. However, the weaknesses in the finer points of the dialogue and the method of staging present insurmountable problems. The play is one that deserves to be performed, but it needs some work before it can convince or move.

* *


State of Fugue

Possibly the most hyped show of this year’s festival, State of Fugue had a lot to live up to. And, whilst it was never quite going to match its own standards in this regard, it came pretty close. True to form, this play has an enormous ego - it shouts at you, it screams at you, and it even throws things at you. But it never becomes absurd or insulting, and it keeps you on side from start to finish.

The play is an intelligent psychological thriller, subtly blending genres and finding a unique and exciting voice along the way. Tom Dockar-Drysdale’s script is beautifully structured and well-written. A few misfires in the dialogue do stand out, but these only serve to highlight their own scarcity. Given how the play had been advertised, the amount of pure comedy came as a surprise. This is normally well-pitched, becoming darker as the play progresses, but there are a few moments when it jars a little with the play’s tone. Dockar-Drysdale’s direction is also highly original, borrowing from cinematic traditions of split-screen action, and the immediate transition between time-frames. If this all seems a bit avant-garde, it is explained by later revelations, so that the playwright has successfully married form and content in a way that feels both intuitive and highly distinctive.

When the plot starts to become too familiar, it is catapulted in another direction. As the inspector admits that “I care more than I usually do”, all threatens to collapse into primetime crime drama cliché, but it is rescued, rather spectacularly, by the twist that sees the play turned on its head. As moments from the first half of the play are replayed and echoed in the second half, so the reality of the situation gradually becomes apparent, and the final denouement reaches the emotional subtlety that is lacking from the earlier parts of the script. All this means that the play looks better in retrospect than it does during viewing, and this is one small weakness that, despite any efforts to the contrary, is pretty much unavoidable. I was also less impressed by the final scene, which wastes time on largely unnecessary explanation.

The production has been staged thoughtfully, with highly effective lighting and a strong, if slightly incongruous set. Taken alongside a simple but well-matched soundtrack, the play is both visually and aurally striking. Credit is due to producer Lucy Smith for managing such an ambitious and technically strong project.

Tom McNulty must be getting bored of going mad on the Assembly Rooms stage, but if he is, he didn’t show it. His energy and versatility do justice to a challenging part, and the rest of the cast form a strong ensemble, with Michael Forde putting on a particularly amusing performance as the homeless man, and drawing on aspects of the Shakespearian Fool.

State of Fugue is an original and impressive play, and given its ambition, its few faults of forgivable. I think we can expect great things from Dockar-Drysdale.

* * * *


Scream Queens Anonymous

Scream Queens Anonymous had me hooked from the start. The concept, whilst not completely fresh, has enough mileage in it to provide some strong and light-hearted comedy – a much needed antidote to the suicidal and psychotic performances that preceded it. And the delivery, though not highly polished, was easily strong enough to do this concept justice.

Given Durham’s large number of talented actresses and relative scarcity of female roles, I was pleased to see a play with six large female parts – and comic parts at that – and everyone lived up to their task. Indeed, rarely have I seen such a universally strong cast: Iona Napier, Hebe Beardsall, Hannah Howie, Natalie Goodwin, Catherine Scutts and Rozi Prekop are a formidable ensemble, and their performances are particularly impressive when you consider that many of them had other major roles in festival productions this week. (As Oscar Wilde might have said of Beardsall: to be murdered once in an evening may be regarded as a misfortune; to be murdered twice looks like carelessness) . The casting is spot on; each actress nails her part, and each seems to have researched the inspiration behind her character.

Julia Loveless’ direction finds the comedy in nearly every line, without forcing it, and opts for a very natural and simple staging. A slightly awkward few minutes ensues when two characters remain on stage to search for clues with very little staging to search around, leaving them looking slightly ridiculous. But, overwhelmingly, the play moves with pace and humour, and rarely lets either of these drop.

James Morton’s script is superb. It is nice to see a writer who clearly respects the comic voice of women, but what makes the script so strong is the complexity of the parody. As well as targeting the six film characters featured, Morton takes a swipe at 90s horror films, Cluedo, Agatha Christie, and women’s book groups. As the play begins to turn into both an And-Then-There-Were-None-styled killing spree and an end-of-mystery summation gathering, the tropes combine in clever and unexpected ways. Nevertheless, the parodying is gentle, and doesn’t seek to ridicule its inspirations, which gives it a respectful and humble tone. On top of this, the dialogue is character-driven, quick-paced and extremely funny. As murder mysteries go, this is pretty upbeat.

There are undeniably weaker moments. The beginning saw some lines lost and others stumbled over, and the middle ten minutes of the play see it lose its way somewhat. Whether Morton is simply running out of material, or whether the cast become less able to deliver the comedy of their lines is unclear: most likely, it is something of both. However, it soon picks up again, and gallops towards its inevitable and hilarious conclusion.

Scream Queens Anonymous is as close to perfect as you are likely to see at a student drama festival. It is neat, well written, beautifully delivered, and brilliantly pitched. So that, despite its hiccups, the play was the highlight of the evening.

* * * *


Durham Improvised Musical

You know the score, even if they don’t. They ask the audience for a setting, a song title and a name for the musical, and create it from there. With its risqué comedy and rambunctious energy, DIM is usually the perfect end to an evening of theatre. As a group, they are so entertaining that they could do pretty much anything and still be worth the ticket price. This evening, however, they faced an unusually tough challenge. The title: ‘The Secret Life of Fleas’. The song: ‘Green Fingers’. And the setting: ‘a family planning clinic’.

I’m not sure whether to take it as a reassuring sign of their virtue or a damning indictment of Durham’s students that not one of the six seemed to know quite what goes on in a family planning clinic. Indeed, the whole concept was abandoned almost instantly in favour of a maternity ward manned by a plant-loving janitor, and built above a deserted hospital in which scientists seemed to be carrying out unorthodox experiments on fleas, with the occasional help of a (presumably) Scandinavian immortal. It should come as no surprise that even the cast had a little difficulty keeping up.

Somewhere amongst the meandering plot, I wondered whether DIM were trying to create problems for themselves. A lot of comedy from improvised musicals can stem from the meta-dramatic references to improvisation, but a balance needs to be struck between this and the delivery of something complete and convincing. But here, some members of the cast seemed determined to make their lives even more difficult than they already were. Guy Hughes’ insistence on creating two characters who would inevitably have to meet resulted in some ludicrous – if amusing – attempts to avoid this. Joe Leather’s remark at the end that “It all makes perfect sense” was said with such self-conscious irony that you wondered if even the cast knew that they had gone too far.

Overall, the show had too many strands for either the audience or the cast to keep track of, and was too messy in the delivery to be genuinely impressive, with characters talking over one another, and a general lack of willingness to accept new directions. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself, and the peals of laughter from the audience were testament to the fact that this is a group of great performers. Even the greats have their off-days.

DIM is where political correctness goes to die, and this lucky audience was greeted by “babies with rabies” and super-powerful polygamous fleas that can apparently induce near-orgasmic levels of pleasure in those they decide to inhabit. It is ridiculous, but it is hilarious, and the confidence of the delivery ensures that even the less comedic moments meet their mark. The standout performance of the night was Joe Leather, whose Hispanic flea certainly garnered more laughs than your average parasite.

It is the end of a very long week, and so I’ll forgive DIM’s largely confused, incoherent and rambling performance. It was nonetheless amusing, and captured the light-hearted mood of the festival’s close. These people can really do no wrong. 

* * * 

Ben Weaver-Hincks

28 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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