first night

The One-Act Plays of Gustav Milner

Carrie Gaunt sinks her teeth into some new writing with HCTC's 'The One-Act Plays of Gustav Milner'


Reviewing new writing is simultaneously a daunting and exciting prospect. Exciting because there's always the possibility of stumbling across something really exceptional and being able to say 'I saw it first' (we reviewers are an egotistical bunch). Daunting because it amplifies the factors that are up for scrutiny. Without the undisputed gravitas of Shakespeare, Chekhov or Beckett et al, the actors are infinitely more exposed and faced sometimes with the unenviable task of creating a competent piece of theatre out of writing that may not have their best interests at heart.

Enter a chilly Autumn evening, Trev's Sir James Knott Hall and HCTC's production of The One-Act Plays of Gustav Milner, written and directed by Stella Alexandrova. The script charts the turbulent life and loves of Gustav Milner, a talented playwright whose full-blooded dedication to the artistic temperament is in danger of alienating all those around him - not least his cast, ex-girlfriend Angelica and long-suffering housekeeper, Maria. It's a sound idea, albeit not an enormously original one. The play employs a bevy of theatrical stereotypes (erratic director, scarily efficient producer, motherly maid) which are so ubiquitous that, whilst they still retain a certain amount of comic mileage, you can't help but feel that you've seen them all before. What is slightly more problematic is that the characters aren't given the opportunity to be anything more than a brash caricature of a theatre cliché - any emotional subtlety has been ruthlessly excised from their personalities and the overall effect is pretty one-dimensional. I felt like I was being hit in the face with the action and commanded to recognise the 'funniness' of the characters from the very beginning, rather than having the opportunity to watch events reach a comic pinnacle, and characters develop of their own accord.

Furthermore, the play seems slightly confused about what era it's written in, leading to some jarring incongruities in the dialogue. Ms Ward's clipped professional jargon sits rather uncomfortably alongside the phrase 'bros before hoes.' Aesthetically the production seems similarly uncertain - costumes run the gamut of 1970's to present day and the props, although few and far between, offer no clearer pointers. Whilst this all reads like a pretty damning indictment of the writing, the basic idea obviously works and the execution has potential - there are some beautifully natural exchanges and some genuinely witty moments but, paradoxically, the production would be far more amusing and satisfying if it cut back on some of the more in-your-face, overtly comic elements.

As it is, the actors have little choice but to play this as a physical farce, bordering on pantomime, and some do rise well to the challenge. Pegah Moradi is unquestionably the strongest actor of the cast, impressively naturalistic and actually managing to make her final scenes heart-warming and sweet. Ollie Tallis as the eponymous playwright has moments of brilliance where his maniacal energy and physicality is perfectly pitched, but is inconsistent and occasionally allows his enthusiasm to run away with him - he was by no means the only offender but diction, particularly in the first half, was terrible. There were quite a few lines that I genuinely couldn't understand at all. Some cast members also seemed very breathy in their delivery, and perhaps both issues can be put down to first-night nerves, but both could be ironed out considerably if everyone slowed down a little. Perhaps it is unsurprising, given the material they have to work with, that some performances feel overwrought and even grating, but the difference between 'conscious melodrama' and 'acting naturally' is not nearly as obvious as it should be.

Alexandrova and her team should be commended for their efforts - staging new writing is never an easy proposition and whilst the production is flawed, none of the flaws are irredeemable. Revisiting the script could work wonders on coaxing some more nuanced performances from the cast and truly teasing out the comedy inherent in The One-Act Plays of Gustav Milner. It just requires a lighter touch and a bit less of the proverbial slap in the face.  

28 November 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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