first night

DIM/TDTC Showcase

Jenny Walser experiences a musical extravaganza in the Assembly Rooms.

 For one night only, Durham Improvised Musical (DIM) and Tone Deaf Theatre Company (TDTC) joined forces to produce a spectacular showcase of Durham’s finest theatrical beings. Never a dull moment to be had, we were treated to an hour of musical improvisation followed by an hour of show tunes and it was just exactly what I needed to cheer me up on a Sunday evening!

The Christmas Hippopotamus, Argos on Black Friday and a song called ‘Help Me Santa’. Sound to you like a recipe for musical success? I wouldn’t have thought so either, but I was definitely made to eat my words. DIM set themselves the task of improvising an hour long musical from scratch, given nothing but its title, setting and the name of one of its songs as above. This would be my worst nightmare and so I was overjoyed to find that it can be done extremely well. Musical numbers included ‘Looking Through The Catalogue’, ‘Best Friends On The Safari’ and ‘Molto Bene’ and I could sing them all now- that’s how catchy they were. The troupe made expert use of harmonisation, rhythm and rhyming to create a sound characteristic to each song. I was in absolute awe of (and faintly concerned...) by the ideas springing into the performers’ heads, but the results were at once fantastically funny and incredibly touching and to create characters and a storyline that an audience can come to care about within such a short period is remarkable.

Much of this is down to Alex Prescot who acted as something of a leader, steering the story back on track if it ever strayed, and to pianist Nick Fleet without whom the show would not exist and whose portrayal of Santa was like no other I have seen. The troupe’s mastery of accents was astonishing, particularly from Elle Morgan-Williams as Santa’s Welsh PA and Sophie Forster as his Scottish wife and I was impressed by just how distinct each character was made from the others purely through the cast’s use of physicality and voice, without costumes or props.

Some of my favourite moments came from Charlie Keable as Harry the Hippopotamus. Just through posture, facial expressions and pacing I could tell who Keable was playing and over the hour I not only grew bizarrely attached to his character but also laughed incredibly hard at it. A highlight was his mesmerizing dance solo during ‘It’s Just Wrong’ and his choice to throw David Attenborough into the mix was inspired. Joe McWilliam as Biffy the Elf was also instrumental in keeping us entertained and I was impressed by the large range of parts he was able to play, and play very well.

Improvisation can sometimes be awkward to watch, especially if a performer shies away from it, but DIM approached the task with such zeal that I at no point felt I had reason to doubt their abilities. I would thoroughly recommend going to see whatever they’ve got in store, it’s great fun to watch and a showcase of Durham’s brightest dramatic minds at work.

Up next, TDTC’s Musical Showcase. The opening number, ‘Hello’ from Book of Mormon, was an absolute joy to watch and a real crowd pleaser – particular mention goes to Dom McGovern as Elder Cunningham – which set the standard for what was to come. The show did not disappoint and I was blown away by just how talented every member of the company was, with not a single weak link among them. Director Sarah Slimani did a fantastic job of selecting a brilliant range of complementing pieces and her use of simple costumes and set fitted beautifully, giving the show a professional air. I loved that everyone was so obviously enjoying themselves and the enthusiasm with which they attacked every number was brilliant to watch, leaving the audience wanting some of whatever they were having.

One of the highlights for me was the ‘Cell Block Tango’ from Chicago with striking choreography and featuring some strangely convincing language skills from Harvey Comerford. ‘I Know It’s Today’ from Shrek is a song I had never heard before but it was so touchingly performed by Eleanor Thompson, Becky Brookes and Lara Dolden that it was one of the most memorable of the night. My standout performances of the night however have to be Finola Southgate’s rendition of ‘Still Hurting’ from The Last Five Years and Rachelle Ojomo singing ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ from Hairspray. Both numbers gave me goosebumps and I had to remember to keep my mouth from gaping open I was so astounded by the beautiful, unique qualities of the girls’ voices and the vocal control they displayed.

Unfortunately the showcase was plagued with technical problems which ruined certain moments and left me feeling quite on-edge as to what might go wrong next. Temperamental microphones and backing tracks meant that several numbers had to be performed acoustically and made it difficult to hear many voices on stage but on one occasion all too easy to hear one in the wings. I have to say a huge well done to all involved in the Avenue Q number - unluckily one of the songs for which timing and tight harmonies are particularly reliant on accompaniment - for persevering admirably when their backing track suddenly disappeared.

I thought that overall TDTC did an excellent job and I'm only sad that after all the hard work that had clearly gone into the showcase, it was only on for the one night. I would urge them to do a repeat of the show at a later date; I know I’ll be buying a ticket!

7 December 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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