first night

DDO's Shakespearean Comedy and Durham Improvised Musical double bill

Georgie Franklin's Epiphany term blues is swept away by an evening of Shakespeare and improvisation


For those not entirely secure with the countless abbreviations in usage at Durham University, this week the Assembly Rooms’ Theatre is host to a Shakespearean Comedy Cabaret by The Durham Drama Outreach Project (DDO) and an Improvised Musical Comedy courtesy of Durham’s Improvised Musical Theatre Group (DIM).

The Cabaret’s first half sees those involved in this year’s Zambia Project offering a wonderful compendium of Shakespearean soliloquys and short extracts compiled by Ellie Gauge. The simple lighting, minimalistic set and bright ‘African’-style trousers created an unpretentious atmosphere through which the cast delivered believable and unaffected characterisations. The chilled transitional music from the likes of Bobby McFerrin with ‘Be Happy’ provided an ironic accompaniment to the dialogue and this reggae vibe emphasized the ‘accessible’ nature of DDO’s Shakespearean verse; the uproarious audience laughter bearing witness to their success.

Only rarely was the ensemble flustered by a first night stumble or cue confusion, but these minimal qualms were eclipsed by the passion and enthusiasm of the actors.  Standout performances were given by Ellie Gauge and George Rexstrew, whose versatility was clearly demonstrated in the witty banter of the protagonists in ‘All’s Well’, but also in their solo efforts as Launce and the Nurse. The onstage chemistry between their lovers, however, was later rivalled by Ellis-Ann Dunmall as the bitingly sardonic Beatrice from ‘Much Ado’, and the changing supporting ensemble members should be commended for their committed reactions throughout.

The production benefited from a high level of energy and varied pace using Lizzie Reavley’s poignant delivery of Sonnet 130 as a stark contrast to Charlotte Thomas’ physicalized description of the ‘spherical’ Nell. During the longer passages of dialogue the energy at times began to drop with lines being swallowed and Hannah Coates’ expressive Malvolio could be portrayed more arrogantly confident, allowing her more time and space to contemplate the consequences of Maria’s trick-letter.

The love/hate sequence provided an opportune outlet to showcase some sultry choreography and arguably the highlight of the piece was the follow up of insults and Shakespearean abuse that rained down on the audience thereafter. Individually, the scenes hung together exceedingly well, but it was their strength as an ensemble in the choric opening and ending sequences which made it such a joy to watch.

And so to Part two:

Improvised comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, but even more so when you add music into the equation. Owing to the quick-witted and talented cast, you would be hard pressed to notice a last-minute line-up change due to illness and the DIM ensemble executed a slick production crammed with musical parodies.

Audience participation is crucial in the creation of an original title, location and song, but under the expert guidance of Caitlin McEwan, “50 Shades of Hooray” began to take shape. The inevitable complexities associated with musical improvisation were ably handled by the cast and Maxwell Spence’s lyrical wit in rhyming ‘strategic’ and ‘paraplegic’ was a certainly a comical highlight. Soph McQuillan’s close harmonies were similarly a fantastic backdrop to the comedy refrains and Simon Lynch’s soul-laden riffs were also used to great effect. Hidden talents amongst the cast from Callum Kenny’s gymnastic ability and penchant for modelling, alongside McEwan’s hilariously resourceful shop owner all culminated to create a sublime, albeit surreal musical experience.

Credit must also be given to the technical wizardry of DST President Dan Gosselin whose well-timed sound and lighting changes effortlessly complimented the surprising plot turns and character changes. In a similar way, Andrew Mair’s keyboard virtuosity further offered the performers a wide selection of rhythms and musical styles to improvise around.

The simple five-chair set created a versatile stage space which was often not fully utilized, with much of the action becoming too firmly entrenched centre stage. After the hubbub of the initial shop scene the sense of defined space was partially lost, but the onstage vivacity and colourful characterisation more than made up for this. There was also an occasional hesitancy with musical entries and a reluctance to lead resulting in a less advanced plot and slightly repetitious choruses toward the end, but these are negligible criticisms considering the array of theatrical elements which DIM kept under control.  The cast’s exceptional vocal skill, rhyme and individual strengths are clear to see and the climactic ‘My Blue Fire Engine’ emphasized their flair and triumphant attention to detail.  

Amidst the chaotic pressure of summative deadlines, dissertations and general second term lethargy, DDO and DIM provide a welcome night of comic relief. As a charitable fundraiser for such a worthwhile overseas project, both these shows are thoroughly deserving of larger audiences. Supporting this show will not only contribute to sustaining the Zambia Outreach Programme, but will also treat you to a night of comedic delight and hilarity: two for the price of one, and one evening certainly not to miss.

27 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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