first night

Durham Drama Festival 2014 - The Assembly Rooms

Hugh Train and Ellie Gauge see what the 2014 Durham Drama Festival has to offer


Yesterday marked the beginning performances at this year’s Durham Drama Festival. Ellie Gauge and I had the pleasure of reviewing the three shows being performed in the Assembly Rooms: ‘Still Life’ by Sian Greene, ‘Quantum Immortality’ by Mariam Hayat and ‘The Noctambulist’ by Joe Skelton.


Hugh Train: ‘Still Life’ by Sian Green





Carl (Alex Booth) places a mysterious advert in the newspaper for ‘artistic minds and lonely souls wanted for a collaborative evening of exploration.’ The play is centered on the interaction between Carl and his guests for the evening: student Lily (Heather Cave), struggling painter Scott (Nikhil Vyas), professional potter Maude (Sophie Cranfield) and graphic artist-cum-primark worker Mel (Danielle Oliver). 


The production is slick and the dialogue snappy, which allows the moments of humor (provided mostly by Oliver) to shine through. Furthermore, Green should be commended for some of the imagery she has woven into the script – Lily’s description of light catching dust particles in the air was a moment for which both Cave and Green should be congratulated.


Nevertheless, these poetic moments were overshadowed by the underdevelopment of other characters. In particular, I felt that the characters of Maude and Scott were lacking in substance, they seemed to exist only to advance the plot, as opposed to being established characters in their own right. This is a shame considering Vyas in particular showed great promise as an actor, but to his credit he made the most of his lines and delivering them convincingly. Cranfield, on the other hand, despite good physicality in her portrayal of the simpering, uptight Maude was hampered by missed cues, which created awkward pauses and, in turn, let the pace drag at times.


The only real action of the show comes from its twist ending, which I had unfortunately seen coming from about ten minutes into the play. The characters morbid conversation as well as the behavior of Carl both dropped unsubtle hints as to the plays conclusion, meaning I felt that I spent the majority of the play waiting for the inevitable, rather than receiving a genuine surprise.


‘Still Life’ is an engaging piece with some strong acting performances, yet it ultimately suffers from a lack of pace. There is too little action before the show reaches its sudden dénouement, which means that the actors are fighting an uphill battle to keep the audience engaged. Nonetheless, the skill of some of the writing and performances renders it well worth a watch.


Hugh Train: ‘Quantum Immortality’ by Mariam Hayat





Henry Everest (Frederico Mollet) with encouragement from his wife Lucy (Lizzie Reavley) and genius physics freshman Clyde Ayden (Luke McCormack) is attempting to create an ‘immortality machine’ to grant eternal life, whilst being ridiculed and hampered by his superior: Professor Grosvenor (David Hodges). The play aims to explore the possibilities of quantum physics and the effect of obsession upon a man.


The show itself is moderately confusing, being presented in a non-linear fashion. The action jumps between the past and present frequently and it is sometimes difficult to discern when, within the shows timeframe, particular scenes were taking place. ‘Quantum Immortality’ interestingly attempts to make use of actual physics equations to explain aspects of its plot, however, the equations themselves were delivered in a rushed fashion and could have done with a bit more clarification as to their relevance.


The actors made brave attempts at a variety of American accents with mixed degrees of success. Accents aside, the actors dealt well with a slightly jarring script, which required the actors to frequently jump between a wide range of different emotions. The consistent changes of pace meant the actors struggled at times to convey the seriousness of the lines they were speaking. Often lines that should have been shocking, i.e. the murder of a frankly staggering number of cats and Everest’s request for hobos to experiment upon (or in other words: kill) elicited laughs rather than gasps from the audience.


The show was, likewise, let down by its tech which ranged from cliché (grim red lights shining down upon any moments of tension) to non-existent in the case of the pistol which failed to fire.


Despite these criticisms the script does show promise (particularly if you have a good grasp of quantum physics). Overall, I would commend the show for its ambition and for the passionate performances by its actors; however, the dialogue and action scenes require some reworking before ‘Quantum Immortality’ is to become an effective piece of theatre.




Ellie Gauge: ‘The Noctambulist’ by Joe Skelton





After an initial awkwardness as the set was laid out with the house lights still up, the opening of Skeltons’ ‘The Noctambulist’ turned out to be utterly superb. It successfully managed to draw the audience in, and set the tone for the rest of the performance brilliantly. Most importantly it brought the perfect measure of energy – which was impressively sustained throughout. The opening highlighted something I thought made the performance a particularly high standard. The actors were clearly not afraid of silence. For me, this demonstrated a real maturity and in turn made for a genuinely believable performance.


The believability was certainly in part down to the beautifully written script. It was slick and fluid, and avoided the easy pitfall of becoming stilted. The dialogue in particular seemed to flow in a way that was true to real life conversation – this is something many writers struggle and for this, Skelton should be highly praised. So too should his actors for their delivery of this splendid writing surely aided its impact. All four actors gave outstanding performances. Xander Drury shone as the shows’ protagonist, Albert. His expressive face, sprightly energy and brilliantly defined character quirks made him a joy to watch. He was well matched by Theo Harrison, as Albert’s best mate Brain. Harrison’s performance showed a real breadth of talent, excelling in both the ridiculousness of the comical scenes and the sincerity of the more tender moments.


All too often student theatre feels pretentious and at times a little too intense. This production wipes away all assumptions and prejudices about student written theatre. It is what it is. It isn’t trying to be something overly edgy. It is at times ridiculous. But it is funny. It is enjoyable. And importantly it is worth watching – not for the life-changing message it wants to portray but simply for the joy of watching it. A success all round, I’d say.


The attention to detail throughout, from the perfectly cluttered set to the fully imagined character relationships, made this production truly outstanding. This should be especially commended given the constraints of time and money in a festival of this scale. I certainly hope all involved receive the acclaim they deserve. 

13 February 2014

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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