first night


Harry Twining spends an evening inside a drained swimming pool with LTC's production of 'Penelope'.

As I entered the auditorium of City Theatre, I was greeted by a relatively small cast of four, each about their tasks, setting the scene for the show to come with their individual characteristics (and fetching swimwear). Bottles, leaves and random paraphernalia cluttered the stage without making it seem claustrophobic, giving an all-too-relatable sense of a decadent party struggling to continue into the hangover of reality. A dim, sickly-green light illuminated the walls, convincingly decorated in the tile-pattern of a swimming pool, always enclosing and trapping the characters. From the moment it began, Penelope carried this inevitable sense of dread, which the numerous laugh-out-loud moments of perfectly pitched comedy never (and rightly so) completely erode. As is always the case with so few actors on stage for such an extended period (virtually the entire 90 minutes), there is an omnipresent pressure to not be a weak link. And I am pleased to report that none of this extremely strong cast were guilty of such.

Each excelled in making the character their own, moulding their performance into something fascinating and distinct from the other three, yet without outshining any of their fellow actors. Zac Tiplady as the self-medicated bibliophile Fitz exuded an unassuming charm with his elastic expressions and perfectly timed delivery of a steady Scottish burr, earning him most of the show’s laughs. The comedy was largely shared by the character of Dunne (Alex Colville), who began the play with an entertaining flamboyance in both body and voice, delivering his lines with an impressive eloquence. This energy reduced the audience to bouts of laughter as he dramatically pledged his undying love to Penelope, yet made it all the more effective as the play drew on and despair started to take hold. I felt this was where both Colville and Tiplady showed their true talents as actors, both delivering lengthy monologues later in the play with genuinely touching and wonderfully subtle sincerity, creating real pathos for their respective characters.

The atmosphere of increasing fear was ever present in Angharad Phillips’ portrayal of Burns, as the only character who did not hide beneath a mask of denial and absurd philosophy. Phillips achieved this through a subtle sense of unease and apprehension in her moments and expressions. Her darting eyes really showed the fear that all the characters truly felt, keeping this ever present beneath the comedy of the play. Despite being seated, I genuinely felt my legs turn to jelly with the feeling of sickening terror she and the others portrayed at the prospect of a returning vengeful husband. This moment was also a highlight for the incredibly engrossing Quinn, played by Freddie Parsons. The whole audience fell under a hushed spell as he foretold the suitors’ gruesome fate, maintaining a slow-burning intensity throughout the production. In this, Parsons presented a powerful charmer, yet also a thoroughly menacing and disturbing character, and I was fully convinced of his sociopathic nature.

The blocking of the show was successful in maintaining the energy without distracting from the meaning of the play, aided by the simple yet effective use of lighting, only really changing to emphasise a suitor in their pleas to the largely unseen Penelope. I thought the presentation of Penelope (played by Ashika Wettimuny) projected across the back wall was a nice touch, reminiscent (at least to me) of an silently apathetic ‘vlog’, and so playing effectively with the show’s themes of inevitable indifference in society. Music was also sparsely used to great effect, marking the often sudden changes in tone from profound to hilarious, yet never making these transitions seem jarring.

Penelope is a performance of a calibre I have not seen in a long while, with some of the best acting in Durham and a highly intelligent, witty and thought-provoking script. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to experience an evening of enthralling entertainment which will leave you pondering upon the questions it raises about society long after you have left the theatre.

3 December 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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