first night

Durham Drama Festival 2016- Site Specific Night

Tom Harper kicks off reviewing for the biggest theatrical event of the year.



Any show that utterly obliterates the fourth wall by presenting the process through which many actors got into the show itself naturally invites trepidation. Admittedly, I was sceptical towards the concept, fearing that the show risked coming across as contrived, however it must be said that John Halstead’s production of ‘Auditions’ exceeded all expectation, both delighting and bemusing the audience throughout with hilariously astute observations towards the problems faced by all actors and directors alike.

Upon entering the somewhat cramped Elvet Riverside room, the atmosphere was set for what many in the audience had experienced countless times: indeed the nostalgia was ever-present. Where the performance really shone was through its references to the day-to-day issues of thespians, and although it must be noted that such jokes were lost on the occasional audience member, for the majority who were frequenters of the DDF scene the jokes were perfectly pitched. Particular highlights were the half-arsed game of ‘Zip-Zap-Boing’ performed by the cast before their big show, the pretentious attire of all involved, and the hilarious running joke of someone trying to find the Ping-Pong club next door. Furthermore, the sheer variety of personalities amongst those auditioning amusingly filled every stereotype, ranging from Max Lindon’s nervous wreck to Angharad Philips’ wannabe professional to Sam Rietbergen’s over-the-top lover of Shakespeare. From the moment that he stepped on stage and fancifully placed his water bottle in the corner, Sam had the audience hanging on his every action, and it his clear that his curious vibrato and dramatic hand gestures stole the show over and over again.

Indeed, there was good energy from all actors from start to finish, which kept the performance lively and interesting throughout. Tyler Rainford was confident in his role as the seminal director, bringing a hilariously constant sense of panic to the role (something that I’m sure all directors can relate to), and although his character became at some points unconvincing, ultimately he handled the leading role well. Anna Galbraith also brought gusto to her part as the producer, however at times her energy dropped, leading her to be significantly overshadowed by other performers.

The show’s tendency to break the fourth wall ensured that it was suitably silly throughout, and although any reviewer is inclined to be wary of melodramatic acting, in this performance it clearly worked. Having said this, occasionally the melodrama felt a tad unnecessary, and the more that actors looked to the audience the more the meta-ness of the performance seemed forced and contrived. Additionally, whilst it must be said that the plot of the play was clever through reinventing the same audition pieces again and again whilst secretly referencing the show’s finale, it’s ‘episodic structure’ of audition after audition was far too monotonous. This formula, whilst funny, became dry halfway through, and many audience members were looking for a bit more development of some of the characters. Carrie Gaunt’s portrayal of the director’s awkward one-night stand, for example, certainly sparked intrigue but left viewers expecting more from her as a plot point, which ultimately started and ended there.

 This said, on balance ‘Auditions’ was a delightfully witty and refreshingly ludicrous take on the ups and downs of the audition process, taking something with which we are all familiar and reinventing it in a comedically satisfying way. Joanna Rusqueen’s 1 star review (handed to audience members as they left) clearly doesn’t do this play justice. John Halstead and writer Hamish Clayton should be pleased with what they have achieved.

Mr Sparks and his Nighttime Larks: A Love Story

The almost haunting atmosphere that audience members were treated to upon entering the Wallis Room sparked intrigue from the outset: Not only were we unusually greeted by the site of a fully-assembled bed, but also Eleanor George obsessively applying makeup in a mirror. The summary of the plot in the programme matched this initial sense of curiosity: An ethereal being known as ‘Mr Sparks’ who visits couples in the night and tears their hearts from their chests if he doesn’t judge their love to be true. The combination of these factors led many viewers to eagerly await what promised to be a thoroughly entertaining and interesting show, however unfortunately this was not delivered.

On balance, the show suffered from a consistently flat atmosphere that was rarely escaped by the performers on stage. It is evident that some of the jokes were highly astute and very well written, however the humour was lost in their performance: for example, whilst Adam Murphy’s musings about how he met the love of his life on ‘just another day’ should have elicited laughter, the lines were delivered in too nonchalant a manner to be funny, which would have significantly improved the piece. Indeed, although Murphy seemed comfortable in his role, his overall acting style seemed switched-off and unconvincing, which crucially affected a cast of only three. Eleanor George was more convincing as his love interest, however their onstage chemistry could sometimes lack, and ultimately left the audience waiting for Mr Sparks throughout the first half of the show.

Theo Harrison however, as the eponymous Mr Sparks, brought a significantly different flavour to the performance, picking up interest in the piece through his unexpected emergence from under the bed and his dazzling crimson suit. Although I question the decision to give any actor a monologue that lasts for over twenty minutes, which at times made the play’s second half monotonous and dry, Theo showed an impressive mastery of so many lines, flawlessly delivering them with dramatic fervour and subtlety. His frequent changes in tone kept the second half varied enough to put it well above the play’s opening, and he must be congratulated on keeping the interest of viewers throughout.

Furthermore, the topics discussed were interesting and thought-provoking: ranging from love to aphrodisiacs to morality to the afterlife to the applicability of leaves in a romantic context. Veteran Durham thespian Hugh Train must be commended for such a philosophically-rich script that had me thinking in new ways as I left, however the structure of the play itself was less impressive. I cannot help but feel that two separate plays took place instead of one: One of two lovers finally confessing their affection to one another, and the other of a more supernatural flavour. The lack of interaction between Mr Sparks and the couple caused these two halves to appear completely disjointed, and the horrendously dark ending, whilst intriguing and unexpected, ultimately left many audience members unsatisfied. Whilst overall the show offers a fascinating exploration on the veracity of love, ‘Mr Sparks and his Nighttime Larks’ promised more than it delivered.

Your Grace

 As the final show of the evening for those of us on Route 3 of the Site-specific night, many felt nervous that not only would the energy of the cast of ‘Your Grace’ be lacking, but also that interest in the play itself would be minimal: never before have such trepidations been dispelled so swiftly and wholeheartedly. By far the highlight of the evening, ‘Your Grace’ provided viewers with a hauntingly tense exploration of class, femininity and the fickleness of love and marriage, keeping us on the edge of our (admittedly highly uncomfortable) seats throughout. The intimate space of the Horsfall Room was certainly a risk for the cast, however ultimately it allowed them each to shine individually through their impressively subtle control over facial expression and minute hand movements, which made the performance realistic and captivating. Furthermore the dialogue offstage ‘behind closed doors’ was excellent, offering a fascinating dynamic between what the actors said in public and what they unleashed in private.

Although the show was perhaps a tad slow in getting going, suffice to say by its climax the audience were hanging on every syllable uttered. Indeed, I am ashamed to admit that I had difficulty taking notes during the final scene, as I was too enthralled to look away even for a moment! It is also difficult to pick out any stand-out performers from the show, as the cast were equally strong and confident in their roles. It was particularly refreshing to see the cast constantly switched-on whilst onstage, especially in light of the rude and raucous noise coming from the nearby Chad’s bar. However, to name a few, Shona Graham must be commended for her toxic portrayal of Loretta, who consistently managed to keep the audience guessing as to her motives whilst simultaneously dominating every scene that she was in. Furthermore Owen Sparkes managed to strike the balance between Eric’s sympathetic and sinister character traits perfectly, convincingly presenting viewers with bouts of internalised rage that kept people unsure as whether to despise or to fear him. Admittedly the male members of the cast took slightly longer to reach their stride than the women, however there was not a single weak moment in the performance.

Indeed, numerous aspects of the show constantly reminded audience members of its professionalism. Not only were early 20th Century accents flawlessly maintained, but Laura Littlefair’s costume design was inspired. Furthermore the plot was impressively well-written by Isabelle Culkin, leaving a haunting yet exciting image at the end of the play, and although the cast sometimes tripped up on their lines this can be expected from a performance that had been done twice that evening already. The remarkably touchy topics of domestic violence and even rape were similarly professionally handled by the cast, preventing the script from appearing tasteless and instead making it rich and thought-provoking. It seems that the D’Oliviers are going to have some serious contenders this year, as ‘Your Grace’ was positively beguiling.

11 February 2016

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.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC