first night

Durham Drama Festival 2013 - Day 2

Sophie Williams discovers another three pieces of student-written theatre on the second night of Durham Drama Festival.

It’s not every day you’re treated to three pieces of theatre in one night. It’s especially exciting when the plays you’re about to witness are completely original creations of your fellow Durham students. I had no idea what to expect when I entered the Assembly Rooms, but there was a tangible buzz in the air, gradually eaten away by the haunting sense of darkness that linked all three performances…


Soap and Water by Hannah Brennan 

Very simply, this is a play about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There are just two characters: an unnamed couple (played by Will Hannam and Anna Feroldi , both of whom suffer from OCD. However, any aspect of romance is completely overshadowed by the overriding issue of mental health. Almost every word of dialogue is exposition on the experience and symptoms of OCD with the odd expletive thrown in, to the extent where it sometimes felt like a dramatic recital of a Wikipedia article with misplaced uses of the ‘f’ word. It’s hard to imagine how a real life relationship could function when every conversation the couple has is on their shared mental defect, and this makes the characters feel a bit one-dimensional. Yes, the illness is unquestionably debilitating and terrible, but do they really need to spend all their time voicing it? Furthermore, they exhibit few of the actual symptoms of their purported condition, despite spending so long talking about them. We only ever see the hygiene-obsessed male carefully washing his hands twice in the hour-long piece, which is surprisingly sparse for someone with OCD. The girl seems to talk more about bulimia than OCD – and again, we never see her symptoms apart from an eventual refusal to eat. These stereotypical aspects of the conditions described also undermine the messy setting, designed to refute the cliché that OCD sufferers are clinically tidy, organized people. Having said that, Feroldi in particular did a superb job of conveying the strain and anguish the OCD takes on her character, and her struggle with sanity (or lack of) is believable and poignant. In spite of the overly didactic dialogue, she sensitively portrays the gradual increase decline into hysteria, and commands our attention even when her character is listless and apathetic with depression. The mood of the play is persistently dark and uncomfortable, sucking us into the characters’ tortured mindset. Brief moments of comic relief – in the form of occasional playfulness between the couple - are quickly lost in the pervasive bleakness. At the end we are told that the events of the play (if they can be called that – not a lot actually happens) are based on writer and director Brennan’s own battle with OCD. This is very admirable and brave, but it would perhaps be more effective as a piece of theatre if the experiences were enacted rather than discussed at such great length. It was a little stagnant for my liking, though perhaps that is the point: that OCD is so greatly and obviously inhibitive that the couple’s relationship is a miracle in and of itself, let alone the subsequent recovery (which, however, is not staged).


The Babysitters by Matt Dann and Lewis Meade

Two incompetent mobsters bungle an interrogation and hilarity ensues, yet it’s very much Pinteresque - a comedy of menace. The dialogue is very witty and many of the lines are laugh out loud hilarious, yet the action surrounds the explicit torture of captive Eddy (Will Downes), and the squeamish amongst the audience have to look away at times. Dave (Michael Forde) and Tommy (Lewis Meade) are the Dumb and Dumber of the mafia world – the dynamics between the two are highly amusing and the comedic timing spot on. But when middle-class mobsters Barry (Matt Dann) and George (Alex Morgan) arrive midway through to clear up the mess made by their stupid contemporaries, they end up stealing the show. The sophisticated pair draw out the surrealism of the situation, amicably discussing their domestic issues (family, marriage, etc) whilst restraining victims for interrogation. But here the comedy starts to ebb. When Dave and Tommy find themselves tied up and tortured alongside their original captive, the underlying ruthlessness of the criminal underworld comes to the fore; yet the duo are strangely blasé about having teeth and toenails tampered with, only wincing and grunting as though suffering a minor discomfort, despite being in the hands of a skilled torturer. When Barry and George disappear offstage, the momentum that carried the play so strongly to start with fizzles out, which is a shame. Not one of the actors put a foot wrong: all five had great charisma, used the space of the stage effectively, projected and articulated their lines, and seemed to have a strong female fan base in the audience! The dialogue was extremely funny on the whole. All that was needed was a stronger ending and it could have been outstanding; nevertheless, it was well directed, very polished and well worth watching.


We All Fall Down by Antonia Goddard

It’s a little hard to summarise this play. An unseen judge is appraising humanity for its inherent evil, and four ‘witnesses’ are called to present evidence in the case against them. Given the witnesses themselves are human, however, it’s confusing as to why they are so damning and disassociated from their own kind. The witnesses proceed to re-enact their deaths: Izzie Price as Trinity is extremely convincing as a vulnerable and naïve 14-year-old, doe-eyed and easily trusting. But her demise is a little trite – why would an online predator seduce her only to stab her as soon as he meets her? Likewise, Ollie (Ben Anscombe) seems bright and bubbly, yet it transpires that he took his own life. At least, that’s the impression I got from the interpretive dance scene – it’s hard to ascertain if it was depression or something else that pushed him over the edge (literally!). Clark (David Sweetenham) died of a broken heart according to Ellis (Sofia Hurst). Actually, it transpires that a rival lover shot him. This entire scene was frustratingly nonsensical – the dialogue clichéd (“If I can’t have her, neither can you”) and the acting wooden. Ellis’s character is the strangest of all, however – she apparently gets hung for pushing her younger crippled brother from a treehouse out of jealousy or spite. As a witness in this otherworld, she is clearly an adult: she has authority and appears confident, swaggering about – yet she is a seven-year-old child in her ‘evidence’. Was she an adult when she killed her brother? If so, it isn’t made clear. The play ends with the characters wondering whether they are in fact imaginary or the humans in the dock (the audience), which has nothing whatsoever to do with the trial or the verdict against humanity, unless it never existed in the first place. So: deceased humans seemingly give evidence in support of the evil of humanity, demonstrated through their deaths, and then wonder if the humans they are seeing in the docks are real or imaginary. If you’re left confused reading this then you’re experiencing exactly what I felt. Clearly the concept needs clarification. The relationships between the four witnesses are unclear. Sometimes they seem close and sympathetic, at other times antagonistic. It’s hard to know whether they have just met or have actually known one another prior to the trial. The experiments with lighting and visuals were engaging, but a bit overdone if the second witness was indeed suffering from depression: given what we witnessed of the dry, subdued bleakness of mental illness sufferers in Soap and Water, the energy of the dancers in the background seemed at odds with someone who is severely depressed. Presumably the dancers’ function was to heighten the drama of his death, but the music (Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream) was more than ample to convey it, so they were a bit superfluous.

Perhaps these reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, creativity and experimentation are encouraged in the ethos of the drama festival, and perfection is not what they are necessarily striving for. Furthermore, the actors were by and large superb, irrespective of the material, and, with a touch of refinement, I would be very keen to see more from these promising writers and directors in future. 

Sophie Williams

22 February 2013

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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