first night

Durham Drama Festival 2014 - The PwC Black Box Theatre

Maurice Samely spends an evening in the DSU in the new Black Box DDF venue

Black Box in Durham

 

Reviewing new theatre is always different. Being present in the first moments of life for a new show, seeing the actors test the claustrophobic air of the Black Box theatre, feeling the script take hold of what were already three sets of fairly slick performances, and hanging in the pause which precedes the applause as the student writer-directors breathe again at the end of their pieces; these are the things that make the Durham Drama Festival a spellbinding yearly interlude for student theatre in Durham, especially when the plays are as original and well performed as they were tonight.

 

Roadway and Bink

 

Ruby Lawrence’s creation is an interesting, colourful, and melancholy play that is brought to life by excellent chemistry between the hyperactive, prickly Bink (Philippa Mosely) and Idgie Beau’s childish yet likable and ultimately courageous Roadway.

The piece centres on the idea that these characters are the ‘creations’ of another character, Laura, and have been incompletely equipped by her with a body, a mind, some personality traits and ideas about life in the real world. At present, as they have been seemingly for the whole of their existence, they are trapped (Roadway prefers the terms ‘enclosed, encapsulated’) in a small room with a couch, a lamp, a rug and an old radio on a small table. With nothing to do except await Laura’s return, they are restless, and return to similar themes, wondering what the outside world is really like from the scraps of knowledge and words they possess, and commenting on their own flaws of creation: Roadway asks herself what a kiss actually is, Bink contemplatively assesses her ‘half-arsed chin’.

Much of the play rests on the physicality of the two performers, and the two are superb in this. Mosley, with an inexhaustible energy and earnestness that reflects a little of the shallow psyche of her character, covers the stage, as well as her more docile friend, with restless crawling, dancing and jumping, which begins in the first scene, where we find her, nose to the floor, looking for golf clubs. The highlight of this physicality is an endearing scene where the two dance ‘for their lives’, as Roadway puts it, unaware of the significance Bink takes from these words (well brought out by Mosley’s expression). Four minutes are spent in shaking, bouncing and rolling around on the floor to Cher’s Believe, a scene which is subtly cleaved by the opposition between Beau’s joyous freedom, and Mosley’s stressful movements, dancing, as she sees it, for the attention of Laura, who seems to have forgotten them.

The play owes a fair amount to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, especially in the cramped intensity generated by a small space to which the characters are bound by a combination of their own self-imposed restrictions and the seemingly interminable wait for a provider of meaning. Director Lawrence infuses the piece with absurd elements, including some lovely retro and random costumes and comic wordplay, which were on one or two occasions let down by over eager line delivery from Mosley, but on the whole well executed. Lawrence’s vision departs from Beckett’s in the end, but it is up to her characters and their semi-fitted personalities to provide the escape.

 

 

 

 

Puppet State

 

Chris Yeates’ exploration of bitterness, mistrust and disillusion in war is a play about two soldiers trapped in a ruined urban space, struggling with ideas: the nobility of fighting for a cause and its ultimate miserable futility.

The play opens on Clara Duncan, in the cast list simply called ‘#1’, uncomfortably pacing the room she is in. Shells drone in the background regularly. She is dressed in army trousers, a tank top, and holds a gun. The black box stage provides her shelter with a darkness and bareness that borders on claustrophobia. Since we begin with #1, in a way we stay on her side throughout the play, and throughout her interrogation of #2 (Adam Kirkbride), who instantly joins her in the room. Whether to trust or to shoot this man of many alibis, as she calls him scornfully, ‘peacekeeper, medic, diplomat, hubby,’ is the representative quandary in which the greater questions are contained: is it worth fighting at all, is victory worth more than life, is life itself worth more than truth.

Behind the surface of sparring and debate there is tenderness between the two, ably brought out by Duncan in certain glances, just as her performance was in danger of becoming a monotone display of suspicion. Yeates has a pair of dancers, A and B (Ellis-Anne Dunmall and Michael Bryan-Earnshaw) take the stage in the aftermath of scenes between #1 and #2. Dressed in black and hauntingly made-up, the pair are flawless dancers, elevating the play, at times let down by a lack of subtlety from the two primary figures, onto a higher plane. The dancers act out the emotions churning inside #1 and #2. Desire for union, of body and in comradeship, is obscured by hate, by having been betrayed before and by the selfishness, which only the threat of death can bring into being.

As the play develops, and Yeates spins a deliberately confusing yarn of shifting alliances, bribed soldiers shooting their own side, rebels and counter-rebels, Duncan and Kirkbride grow into their performances, and an energy comes into their dialogue, which culminates in a sorrowful farewell to the sound of banging on the door of their shelter, which has been blank witness to a shift in the two of them also – in trust in each other; in ideology, belief in the use of war to change things; and in the value of truth above all things. Yeates’ modern, considered piece finds for its subject any of a number of recent conflicts, but it seems most attuned to the bitter deceit of Syria’s civil war, and while it is not without hope, it is a melancholy indictment of the cruelty war brings out in its participants. 

 

Varmints

 

Ella Holloway’s fine piece of physical theatre is a plaintive call for a time when one could still hear ‘the sound of the bees’. It evokes through dance, spoken word and song the earth’s transition from Arcadian paradise to mechanized, industrial hell.

Her all female cast, an excellent troupe: Annie Osborne, Polly Norkett, Melanie Webb, Leonie Price, Phoebe Chan and Helen Fitzmaurice take the appearance of what seemed to me a combination of giant pandas and cats, made up identically with black eye makeup and hair tied into two scrunches on either side, representing ears. They begin the piece in harmony, playing with balloons, purring and bounding over the stage looking very much like a group of innocent, friendly animals. In a magnificent moment, the peace of the scene is rent in the screeching pop of one of the balloons, as one varmint steps outside of the group to narrate meta-dramatically that when ‘the others’ came, all beauty of the original state was lost. Behind her the animals turn, bathed in a new, angry red light, into beasts, tearing at each other and themselves.

The early 20th century expansion of urban centres, driven by industry and factory production lines, is reproduced in the group’s jarring, repetitive movements, as they either cross the stage in blind ignorance of each other, or work together sullenly as a conveyor belt. Their misery at the destruction of their individual identity is brought out by their costumes, which are all grey, black or white: different, but only in the shade of their unhappiness. 

The narration that accompanies each stage of the original paradise’s degeneration is well written by Holloway, often casting a critical eye on contemporary society, mantras such as ‘making more noise and listening less’ and ‘we are all alone because we can’t listen’ are repeated by the dancers, and suddenly the shades of the girls’ clothes look like the whites and blacks of smart phones and tablets.

When one varmint takes it upon herself to begin blowing back up one of the balloons they had abandoned, the power of the individual to effect change is celebrated, and the play ends on the apparently hopeful note that ‘nothing can stay the same forever’, and so an escape from the mechanized modern age is achieved – but for how long can the varmints keep hold of their reclaimed paradise?

13 February 2014

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