first night

Durham Drama Festival 2014 - Site Specific

Sophie Williams goes reviewing in the rain for the DDF Site Specific night


First Night: Durham Drama Festival 2014 – Site Specific



It truly is a privilege to experience the Durham Drama Festival with such a plethora of talented writers and intelligent actors. Trudging around in torrential rain after a long, hard day of essay writing, however, was not how I envisioned spending the evening of Valentine’s Day; and as I sat down behind a couple engaged in public displays of affection (get a room!), I seriously questioned my commitment to reviewing for First Night. But tonight’s performances were seriously worth it, and as the evening progressed the shows went from strength-to-strength…


Casting Bronze by Tom Morcom


The Norman Chapel made for an intimate viewing experience for Morcom’s experimental ‘Casting Bronze’. The performance was largely carried by Nick Owens as ‘Curer’ and Rohan Perumatantri as ‘Pat’, though Zoe Coxon as ‘Dame’ deserves a special mention – although she has fewer lines than Perumantantri or Owens, her performance is riveting and she certainly steals the show.


The play’s momentum is sustained almost entirely through surreal, poetic-like dialogue. The actors do well to bring life to their lines because it sometimes frustratingly elusive. It has the feel of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’: there are fragments of rhetoric that feel familiar (for instance, Curer’s repetition of ‘Old Boy’ brings Gatsby to mind) but are detached from their original context and interspersed with completely unrelated lines, creating a disjointed feel: the grandeur of classical references are juxtaposed with obscenities, like references to ‘tits’ or ‘pubic hair’. It could be compared to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition: it shocks, displaces and unnerves you just when you think you’re beginning to understand what’s going on. For a student of English Literature, therefore, this play is fascinating – I was intrigued by Morcom’s experimentation and would love to analyse the script! His absurdist style may not be everyone’s cup of tea – it is certainly driven by more dialogue than by plot, and you may be left with more questions than answers.  Nevertheless, it is a very ambitious first play, so well done Tom!


The Eve of St Agnes by Antonia Goddard


Another play for Literature lovers… A dramatized version of Keats’s famous poem of the same name. The wooden panelling and tapestries adorning the walls of  Prior’s Hall set the scene perfectly for the medieval castle in which the play is set. It was also very suitable for the occasion – what could be better than a classic love story on Valentine’s Day?


True to the source material, the beauty of the play lies in its simplicity: the story is straightforward and dialogue easy to follow. The cast was very strong and their performances a pleasure to watch. As well as being all-around talented actors, the relationships between them felt very authentic. Elizabeth Johnson was commendable as the lovely Madeline and had believable chemistry with Phillipe Bosher, who brought great charisma and energy to the role of Porphyro. The minor characters were the true stars, however: particularly Hamish Clayton as the tyrannical Baron Elroy and Beatrice Vincent as the affectionate and comic Angela (with a surprisingly accurate Westcountry accent!).


Overall, Goddard’s play was extremely faithful to the traits that made the original poem so popular and provided a highly entertaining and enjoyable show that significantly brightened my Valentine’s Day.


What’s the Harm? By Alex Prescot


The debating chambers were an appropriate venue for this courtroom-based play. Initially the review for this was not looking too promising, with a substantial delay before the play finally commenced. But oh my word, it was worth the wait!


It is a challenge tackle something as topical and distressing as paedophilia – harder still to make it an ‘enjoyable’ experience for the audience. Yet ‘What’s the Harm?’ succeeds in creating a gripping, highly sensitive drama about two tangled relationships between teachers and students. A judge played wonderfully by Ellie Gauge frames the play as she agonises over the verdicts she passed on two similar –but very different – cases. Jack Fenwick is utterly convincing as the menacing and manipulative Mr Canton, especially paired with the vulnerable Bella, played with extraordinary believability by Jenny Walser. Likewise, Matt Todd’s conflicted Mr Richards is brilliant contrasted against Izzie Price’s attention-seeking Tracy. Each character was played to such perfection that I completely forgot that these actors were, in fact, students my own age rather than teachers and secondary school pupils. I honestly cannot emphasise enough how powerful each individual performance was, as the characters evolved and their insecurities and motives were explored in rich depth. It is totally immersive. The dialogue was subtle but extremely effective, completely devoid of clichés or stereotypes. The movement and use of space was superb and carefully choreographed. Even the use of lighting was effective, switching between a harsh white light for court scenes and a warmer light for the school scenes.


In every respect, this play was outstanding. It was bold, it was disturbing and it was absolutely enthralling from start to finish. It was completely faultless and fully deserved the standing ovation it received at the end. Bravo, Alex Prescot and team! 

15 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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