first night

Soul Music

Nikhil Vyas delves into the Discworld with Ooook! Productions' annual Terry Pratchett adaptation.

 Ooook! Productions' annual Terry Pratchett stage adaptation is one of DST's most treasured highlights, and with Pratchett's tragic passing last year, the opening night had even more of a heightened anticipation surrounding it. And in typically professional Ooook! fashion, these expectations were largely met in Soul Music. Following the dual storylines of Death and his granddaughter Susan, alongside the exploits of an up and coming band in Ankh-Morpokh, we were immersed into the enchantingly bizarre Discworld. Nevertheless, there were certain structural issues that prevented the show from being as effective as possible.

The most immediately obvious of these is the length of the show- at almost three and a half hours long, it is frustratingly long. And the episodic structure that underpinned Imogen Eddleston's adaptation throws this problem into even sharper relief, as most of the play is constructed around short mini-scenes, punctuated by endless blackouts. This has the impact of continually starting and stopping the action, making it very difficult to establish a flow for the play to take. It was therefore hard to fully appreciate or understand what was going on when the narrative was subjected to continual interruption. Eddleston's dialogue itself was superb- laced with hilarious wit, it successfully weaved in deeper reflections on mortality, time and the nature of success. I only wished that some scenes were restructured in a way that allowed the audience to really sit back and enjoy the action. Within the limitations of this format, the direction did not have enough variety or dynamism to keep the action consistently entertaining. There were moments of real triumph throughout-the build up to the band's concert at the end of Act 1 was a particular highlight, and it would have been great to see even more vivid standouts like this. However, I appreciate that for more diehard Pratchett fans, the runtime was a source of joy, with the enthusiastic first night audience in constant peals of laughter throughout.

Where the direction and writing really came together was in bringing to life the many eccentrics, outcasts and misfits who occupy the Discworld, and the ensemble offered an embarrasment of riches when it came to acting talent. The two standout performances of the evening came from Adam Simpson as Buddy and Laurence Stanley as Death. Simpson had a wonderfully grounded presence which contrasted the crazier characters surrounding him. His skill in tracing and expressing his character's arc- from the starry-eyed optimism of the start of the play towards poignant disillusion towards the end- in a consistently natural way should be praised. And Stanley's portrayal of Death was just fantastic. Covered in head to toe in a black cloak, with nothing but a pair of beady blue lights visible to the audience, he made full use of his Darth Vader-esque gravelly voice. His ability to switch from deadpan sarcasm to mournful yearning with just slightest shift in inflection was remarkable, and his drunk scene was easily the highlight of the entire show.

Yet it was the wider range of characters which really made this a memorable experience. Wilf Wort and Kitty Briggs struck a fine rapport as Buddy's bandmates Glod and Cliff, while Matthew Elliot-Ripley nailed the endearing charm and grouchiness of Albert, Death's manservant. Michael Nower's fastidious Mr Clete was irresistibly funny, and Talor Hanson had an amusing nonchalance and remarkably assured presence as the Raven.  However, in contrast to these standouts, I felt Freddie Drewer needed more confidence and nuance in her performance as Susan, despite her ability to convincingly play the more heightened emotional states of her character. The 'Death Of Rats', another recurring character, stopped being funny within the first few minutes, and instead became a rather irritating feature across the play.

The technical design of the play also demonstrated a masterful usage of the Assembly Rooms Theatre, with everything from flats to flys being utilised. Under Tanya Agarwal's tech direction, the set design and the lighting both had tremendous variety and attention to detail in guiding us through the shifting locations. As previously mentioned, though, the clunky scene changes were something of a hindrance to the action, and I was disappointed that a play about music didn't actually have all that much in it- the presence of a soundtrack for scene changes may have helped sustain the energy.

These criticisms are not meant to detract from the success at the heart of Soul Music- to be brought into Pratchett's world in such a memorable way was a great experience. Instead, with some refinement, the production has enough talent and potential in it to be a real gem. 

19 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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