first night

Durham Drama Festival - Site Specific Night

Callum Kenny kicks off this year's DDF reviewing with the Site Specific Night



Hugh Train tells you to expect pretention and narcissism at the beginning of Ozymandias. As this is a play written, directed, produced by and starring Mr. Train, this was probably an apt start. It is inconceivable that an audience member could walk in without preconceptions about this piece of theatre; I personally was concerned that it would be clichéd, predictable and inelegant, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Ozymandias is self-consciously wanky. Opening with a truly ostentatious tableau in which Train pours milk into a bowl, dons a symbolic mask and sonorously declares ‘I am Ozymandias,’ he continues to ask ‘were you expecting something more impressive?’ This really sets the tone for what is to follow over the next half hour. Ozymandias is simultaneously parodic and serious. This description probably does not do it justice, for Train dexterously traverses the terrain of metatheatricality, arriving at something which is compelling precisely through mocking itself. This is the real saving grace of this performance, as the boundaries are constantly blurred between self-indulgence and self-ridicule. It is of course outrageously gimmicky and conceited in concept, but Train is charismatic and clever, and so this fact is simply accepted and absorbed into the performance itself.

To do something like this takes balls. Train is exposed throughout (both literally and metaphorically,) and he has no crutch to rely on; he is rendered totally vulnerable to the audience. Luckily, then, his performance is good. The show was polished, and the mask never slipped. Train is always one for wholly committing to his persona, and this was no exception. He showcases his versatility through a bipolar-esque hurtling from emotion to emotion. This is not a play in which you are ever allowed to feel comfortable- there is always the fear that Train might turn his attention to you, that he might lose control. Most of the time, it was captivating, and Train’s huge energy is what maintains the momentum of this piece, which could have grinded to a halt otherwise.

Furthermore, it was timed perfectly. A solo performance always runs the risk of overrunning its novelty, but Train did not allow self-indulgence to hamper the audience’s interest, and at a thirty-five minutes running time, no more was required. The text itself was fluid and funny- a good job was done with regard to keeping it engaging and fast-paced.

This piece is narcissistic and pretentious, but as we were warned, you can hardly complain. Moreover, it is clever and well executed. It certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Train wrote this to be contentious, and he succeeded. I must applaud him. Ozymandias is not safe. It is different. It is ‘entertaining,’ and isn’t that what you want from theatre?


Werthers and Wrinkles

It is a rare thing for new writing to elicit any sort of emotional response, but Werthers and Wrinkles is an exception. Durham Drama Festival is aimed at helping emerging playwrights find an outlet for their voice, and this writing by Sophie McQuillan and Alex Prescot is thoughtful, provoking and mature. The play is a glimpse into those relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren, and it is handled with sophistication. As a piece of theatre it was well-balanced between humour and gravitas and was compelling throughout. In particular, the composition of character was precise and unpatronising: this performance felt personal and well thought-through.

Kate Barton’s casting of Charlie Keeble and Carrie Gaunt was inspired. Both gave excellent performances, but Gaunt was exceptional. Dual casting is difficult, particularly when the characters are as divergent in age and outlook as a grandparent and a fourteen year-old girl, but Gaunt handled this expertly. She gave an incredibly natural performance and her physicality was extremely nuanced. In particular, her older persona was very funny, facilitated by excellent comic writing. Perhaps more sincerity was required in the emotional scenes; Gaunt unfortunately was required to cry frequently, which is difficult to make seem believable. However, this did not detract from her performance. Similarly, Keeble gave a convincing performance and appeared totally at home as both figures. His interview scenes were particularly strong, and his timing was very good.

Barton directed with sensitivity and attention to detail. Limited by the space, black-outs might have appeared clumsy, so this was deftly worked around and the compromise was pleasing. Donning the night-gown took on a symbolic meaning, reflecting the change in age, and this was- on the whole, convincing. My only criticism would be of the dance, which felt stylistically out-of-place in a generally naturalistic piece, but this is a minor detail. Barton did an excellent job and the use of transition music was a nice touch.

Werthers and Wrinkles is an exciting piece of writing which was executed solidly. Conceptually, it is remarkably strong and finely-tuned, choosing not to force the emotional content. What we are left with is an organic piece of theatre that really speaks to the grandchild within us.


The Night Watch

The Night Watch is an appealing concept. Two British soldiers encounter a Spanish girl who successfully makes them question the value system to which they adhere, and their own personal responsibility within that structure. It is philosophical and thoughtful; with a little more work, it could be excellent. Unfortunately, the plot was at times slow-moving and predictable. It is hard work to maintain momentum through a piece which is as reflective as The Night Watch, particularly as in the main it takes the form of a duologue. Antonia Goddard clearly worked hard to keep the text engaging, and there was some excellent writing, particularly for Delilah. The audience is provoked to question the relationship between killing in wartime and murder, and to consider both sides of conflict- this central episode was the strongest and most convincing of the text. However, the ending was clichéd and resolved itself too easily: Delilah, who is a believable creation, becomes something resembling a stock-character through the play’s conclusion, which is a shame.

Sadly, the writing was hampered further by an uncomfortable performance by Wilf Wort as Captain Hayes. It lacked the subtlety that was required and at times it felt like he was searching for lines. In a play which relied so much on the growing relationship between Hayes and Delilah, this prevented the script reaching its true potential, as the connection felt forced. Although there was some light and shade in his portrayal, much of the action was on one level and felt a little pantomime. Wort can clearly act, so perhaps the fault lies with the casting; David Myers was commendable as the down-to-earth Pickering but was restricted in terms of stage time. Had the casting been switched between the two, there might have been more nuance in the performance. Emilie Aspeling was a stand-out in the play, simultaneously illustrating vulnerability and gumption. Her performance was confident and assured, contributing to the energy of the piece.

This is an ambitious piece of theatre that deals with big ideas and tensions. It is not a perfect text, but it is an incredibly strong basis from which to build, and Goddard has done well. Furthermore, a change of location would do this play some good; Prior’s Hall was too large and impersonal for the staging and it swamped the actors, who did not utilise the space. This might work better in a more intimate setting, as it deals with personal questions of identity and empire. Although there are elements on which to work, fundamentally, the concept is interesting and has scope to develop into a really searching exploration of war and the individuals affected by it.


5 February 2015

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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