first night

Durham Drama Festival 2016- The Assembly Rooms

Kate Barton experiences the offerings at DDF's Assembly Rooms.

The Princes’ Quest

The Princes Quest is an innovative twist on the cliché of a romantic fairy-tale. The aged Ernest (Joe McWilliam) mourns the loss of his love, sitting on a bench accompanied by the child (Bianca Watts)  where he retells in a fairy-tale fashion the moment when he first won his true love. It was a show within a show and Olivia Race’s direction was imaginative in the use of space creating the crossing of the colliding two worlds.

Music and lyrics by Henry Winlow were perfectly executed, showing sophistication in both variety and musicality. Winlow produced a fantastic overture/introduction to all the characters and the fairy-tale world of Evergreen. The lyrics were also subtly astute, including cheeky Disney references, although I felt that there are moments were the lyrics could have been more innovative, possibly furthering the parody of the fairy-tale. Some of the highlights have to be the two boys or Princes sing-off as they fought over the Princess, where one could not help but think of the similarly dramatic flare in Sondheim’s “Agony”.  Especially memorable moments was undoubtedly McWilliam’s final ballad or Watt’s finale where her high soprano and crystal clear tone sent chills down my spine. The book written by alumni Sophie McQuillan did an impressive job tying together all the music, along with the story within a story. Altogether, the plot was intelligently constructed and was cohesively executed.

Entering the Assembly Rooms to a set, which looked like the mixture of a summer garden or an old lady’s conservatory, set the tone for the dynamic shift between the present day conversation and the retelling of the fairy-tale come party, including Bill (Nick Fleet) the passionate if not slightly awkward horticulturist. Olivia Race’s directorial decision to have Fleet on stage was a clever use for the continuous blurring of music and action.

McWilliam gave a strong performance as the protagonist Ernest, especially in his final ballad highlighting Ernest’s internal struggles. However, I felt that he could have gone further in pushing the differences of the broken future Ernest to the more hopeful and resilient Ernest. The moments where the story broke back into the present day has more potential then was tapped, along with Ernst’s breakdown could be further pushed emotionally to engage the audience and increase believability.  That said McWilliam’s and Yates' onstage chemistry exuded naturalism, and both men consistently grew in confidence and gave strong vocal performances throughout.

Lydia Feerick did a sterling job as the fed-up and conflicted girl in the middle of the princes. Likewise Ellie Jones as Tinkerbell added great comedy and sass as the Princess’s best friend offering her advice and bringing much attitude especially during her solo Also special mention to Fleet as Bill’s few lines elicited much laughs from the audience. However, the standout performance was Bianca Watts as Charlie who was tasked with the difficult job of portraying a child and yet was consistently engaging from the outset. Immediately winning the audiences hearts, her sincere naivety and comedy mainainted consistent throughout the performance.

That said the piece did suffer from pace issues, especially during the party scene which, although was supposed to be a dull party never achieved believability. Projection over the laughter also became an issue as many lines were lost over the laughter. Race’s direction and choreography of the songs was imaginatively put together, however it did at times appear stilted and rehearsed rather then seeming like spontaneous, fluid movement – although this can be rectified by clearer intentions and energy on the actors part as well as further rehearsal.

That said the girl next to me wiping away tears at the finale was a credit to the whole production team and cast.

Check Your Hair Mate

Check Your Hair Mate, written by Alex Prescott and Macks Bougeard is the comedic tale of the strange happenings in the village of Little Humping; including gossiping hairdressers, a slightly racist Swedish gentleman, and a chess game between the World Chess Champion and the local fisher Bobby – mistaken for Bobby Fischer. It's a clever title pun. Although with a curious premise and moments of real hilarity, this show wasn’t personally my cup of tea.

The script was just as strange as the synopsis promised, however I felt that the lack of consistency and of structured plot was a detriment to the piece. Coherently and creatively written, filled with many laugh out lines, chess puns and wit, the overall plot unfortunately had little consistency and structure. It is hard to place the play into any kind of comedic category as it had so many elements of all, which means that although there was always comedy to be found by the audience, it left me in a state of permanent confusion as to the piece’s consistency in both acting and direction.

The set was rather incongruous with a rather unnecessary smattering of hairdressing equipment at the front of stage for seeming very little reason except for aesthetic purposes. That said Alex Prescot’s directorial decision to use voice-overs that the actors were aware of was well sustained and tied together both the plot and gave intriguing character introductions. Furthermore, Prescot’s use of intelligent blocking allowed for the play to remain accessible for the audience and the badly written banner was a lovely use of tech and set.

One of the highlights of the show has to be Harry Adair’s Hans who had fantastic characterisation conveying the World Champion Chess player. His accent and physicality had myself and the entire audience in fits of laughter. Aided by cleverly written quips, Adair convincingly brought to life the eccentric German lost in a very strange village. Other standouts included Sarah Slimani (Fiona) who created a brilliant contrast between her desperately seeking village hussy and occasional rude asides often to Em (Melanie Clark) bearing the brunt of her sassy tongue. Melanie Clark was a sterling effort as Em the talkative owner of the hairdresser’s who could have stepped straight off a reality show.

Harry Twining as the foreigner Jakob in the village attempting to catch the eye of Fiona brought enjoyable energy to his role. Although Twining’s accent was not well sustained, the writing and delivery of many of his misunderstandings were a great element of the piece’s comedy. Harvey Comerford and Uday Duggal also gave strong performances as villagers caught up in the day’s chaos. Duggal’s naturalism was a refreshing contrast to Comerford’s exaggerated physicality and characterisation as old Joe.

Sadly the piece’s pace dropped on occasion, possibly to do dipping of actor’s energy in the slower scenes. There were also many lines I missed due to the too fast speed and lack of diction on the actor’s part. There was occasional some strange blocking choices of two characters sitting on the floor when there are empty chairs right next to them. Unfortunately the ending was also rather anti-climatic and finished rather abruptly.

That said if you were to watch it, not over analysing the madness of the plot or characters but watch it to simply enjoy it for a piece of comedy – you will be entertained. For all its flaws, the script does contain brilliant jokes eliciting genuine laugh out loud humour form the audience. It was not my personal cup of tea – the pieces' problems remain, for me, in the script formulation and lack of coherent plot.

One Small Step

One Small Step follows the story of the siblings, Steph and Euston as they go through the unimaginable difficulty of Steph’s terminal cancer treatment. Immediately, I should say that it is not a cheerful premise, however, there is few student productions I have seen were I have ever laughed and felt so emotionally moved as I did in this production.

Written and directed by Rohan Perumatantri, One Small Step deals with some extremely heavy issues for a student audience, but why shouldn’t these issues be written about? We all know someone who has either suffered with or who has passed away because of cancer and so why not have the courage to write about the youth experience of going through it. The writing was a sophisticated blend of comedic memories and stories, with deeply touching moments of characters distress. The balance between the two of these features was one of the highlights as it was never solely comedic nor entirely upsetting. Fusing these was one of the piece's greatest strength. The naturalism of the script meant that there was consistently relatable moments of university, friends or family which further added to the pieces naturalism.

Perumatantri’s attention to detail was evident throughout with subtle but polished blocking which created the believable detail to further engage the audience. Perumatantri’s creativity was also evidenced by using such a simple set of the bed, the focus against the black canvas which directed the audience focus entirely. Stage lighting was also innovatively used in this piece– especially creating the stars and the pair of siblings confiding under the covers.  Producer Leying Lee also deserves credit for being able to source a fully functioning hospital bed, which was crucial to the performance.

For a two-hander much of the performance rested on their chemistry and relationship, and actors Annie Davison and Dominic McGovern delivered this. The ordinary and dear relationship between the brother and sister was evident from the beginning and was well sustained throughout. Both extremely complex and likable, as an audience you believed every word the characters went through. Neither outshone the other, but instead further complimented each other. McGovern as the supportive brother Euston was never one-dimensional but conveyed all the complexities and sensitivities to his sister. Likewise Davison gave a stunning performance as Steph who’s emotion ranged from anger, to sadness, to grief and loss.  Davison’s portrayal of both tough older sister and  vulnerable cancer patient is a credit to her emotional range as well as her consistent intentions and focus throughout the piece. The two worked seamlessly together and I followed their journey all the way.

There are moments of the play that I feel can be improved. Although, the play is not in chronological order, I wonder if there could be a clearer way of distinguishing between time and Steph’s deterioration. At times there was not consistent lighting shifts which means that although some scenes transitions where well thought through – the occasional one felt awkward and cumbersome. Furthermore, although eloquent and beautiful spoken, Davison’s final speech is too long and rather unnecessary as we have already seen her arch and don’t need reminding of the message we, as an audience, already understand loud and clear.

The professionalism of this piece was truly remarkable and the sound of the audience chuckling and choking back tears throughout is a testament to the piece and the actors strength. By the end the whole audience was blinking back the tears though a smile. And for a night at the theatre – what more could you possible ask?

12 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.
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