first night

Durham Drama Festival 2017: The Assembly Rooms Theatre

Alexander Marshall experiences an evening of original writing at The Assembly Rooms Theatre.


The evening's first performance, Toll, was a carefully and lovingly written true account of writer Charlie Keable’s great grandfather Oliver Soanes, otherwise known as Toll, through his World War One experiences. Overall, Toll proved a strong and often genuinely touching tale, even if minor issues and first night teething problems were occasionally evident.

For a start, Keable must be thoroughly proud of his script. Throughout it manages to capture one’s attention and the characters remain believable without becoming over or understated, and the play rarely drags with the exception of a few moments that felt drawn out a little too much. Keable has truly succeeded in bringing what is an obviously deeply sentimental and personal story into the world of theatre.

Adam Simpson, as the titular Toll, gave a strong performance and should be commended for handling a role that clearly holds a great emotional weight behind it with aplomb. Simpson remains interesting and believable throughout, particularly in scenes portraying battle and the injuries Toll sustains, during which his expression of pain felt genuinely palpable as an audience member. This said, however, there were moments where I felt Simpson could have done more, particularly in his solo moments of exposition, which sometimes felt a little flat. One such example would be as Toll describes the death of his brother, a greatly emotional moment which was left feeling a little underwhelming.

The rest of the ensemble cast had a particularly difficult job filling in all of the supporting characters through Toll’s story. First appearing as Toll’s parents, Corinna Harrison and Harry Twining both gave very strong performances. Their chemistry together as parents was lovely, and the scene of Toll’s return home was a touching moment. Particular praise must go to Twining, who easily commanded the stage both as Father and as a military officer—his range of accents and characters were clearly defined and never slipped. Jasper Millard also gave a very strong performance, with his desperate outburst at the prospect of returning to the front standing out. Accents were largely maintained by the whole cast, although some slips were noticeable, most often with Simpson slipping into American. 

One of the strengths of Toll was certainly the physicality of all of the actors, and directors Tyler Rainford and Keable must be praised for their blocking, the choreography of more physically portrayed scenes, and the attention to detail in the physical aspects of characterisation. It was just this that led to one of the most affecting scenes of the entire performance: the portrayal of The Battle of Mametz Wood. Under beautiful smoky orange lighting, the visions of soldiers advancing and being slaughtered was truly a powerful one, and the highly expressive faces and committed physicality of the cast left a tangible silence hanging upon the audience.

I would also greatly congratulate the whole production team. The costumes and make up were both fantastic, and lovely additions such as the genuine period rifles gave a wonderful aesthetic authenticity to the production. For this, producer Tanya Agarwal and head of costume Harriet Billington are to be commended. The lighting design was also fantastic throughout and served to both enhance and create some fantastic moments, although the unfortunate tech issue of flickering LEDs in the performance proved distracting. The inclusion of original composition was also a beautiful touch and both Alex Mackinder and Becky Brookes deserve praise for fostering this beautiful addition to the performance.

On the whole, Toll is a touching, heartfelt and well-written piece of theatre, all the while featuring four impressive performances. With some minor tweaks and the inevitable first night mishaps and slips out of the way, I thoroughly recommend going to see this uniquely personal and emotive story.

Alford and the Acid Tip

Right from the off, Alford and the Acid Tip was the greatest potential unknown of the evening’s theatrical offerings: a seemingly surreal comedy also handling the delicate issues of capital punishment could have easily gone either way. Fortunately, Kate Lipson’s entry was enjoyed as a resounding success. It was wickedly funny with genuine moments of poignancy and meaning, and it certainly stood out to me as the evening’s highlight.

Every member of this truly ensemble cast were fantastic at constantly keeping the pace and energy of the piece, and all of them sustained their characters well and accents perfectly throughout. One of the greatest strengths of the piece was its self-awareness and willingness to interact with the audience. Right from the very first moment, every time Elle Morgan-Williams and Sam Baumal spoke to, addressed, or even emerged from a door and looked at the audience, there was an eruption of laughter.

What struck me about this performance was that it was difficult in my mind to pick out a favourite moment—not for a lack of one, but for the variety to choose from. From cast members having the audience in stitches by emerging from the trapdoor to Baumal and Morgan-Williams completely owning a musical number on a glistening silver piano, there was a wealth of comic and dramatic high-points. One truly standout moment, however, had to be Saroja Lily Ratnavel’s monologue as a convict receiving their last meal on death row. Rarely does a speech so quickly go from genuinely funny to almost tearfully sad, and Ratnavel’s potent combination of precise comic timing and honest facial expressions brought this to life beautifully.

The structure of the play, with various scenes such as Kishore Thiagarajan-Walker’s brilliantly over-the-top game shows and the like, framed by the recurring protesters (played by Grace Longman, Morgan-Williams and Baumal), kept the whole thing fresh and exciting, even if at times a little jarring. Occasionally the pressure on actors to play so many parts was felt with slightly lagging costume and scene changes. Lighting design was fantastic, particularly in the use of LED effects during the gameshow, and the looming presence of the raised and fairy-light covered electric chair was a nice touch.

Overall, I can’t recommend seeing Alford and the Acid Tip enough. I can certainly guarantee you won’t see anything else like it. From the hilarious to genuinely touching, Kate Lipson and her prod team and cast have created a gem of student writing, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

Screen 9

The evening’s last piece, Kate Barton’s verbatim homage to the victims of the 2012 Aurora shooting, was always going to be tough. Whilst I wholeheartedly commend Barton’s clearly extensive work and research in putting a project like this together, the end product for me felt a little lacking.

The play opened with the four characters on stage in front of the curtains giving their backstories to the audience, and with the nature of the empty set and complete absence of props, every aspect of characterisation fell under close scrutiny. Accents, whilst strong from some performers, were unfortunately not uniform. The opening section, although perhaps necessary, also felt somewhat static. This for me throws up one of the inherent issues of verbatim theatre. When putting together a play formed of real world quotations, it can be hard knowing what to cut and what to leave, and personally I felt the opening and final sections of Screen 9 were too long.

The second section of the play began as the cast walked one by one into the audience, collecting a tub of popcorn each (kudos to the girl who stood silently holding it for the opening) and taking seats in the audience. This began what was undoubtedly the strongest section of the piece, both in terms of script and performance. The use of spotlights and a projection of the time of the events, coupled with the immersive nature of the actors sitting in the audience, was both novel and effective. It must be said that the performance of Steph Sarratt obviously stood out through the whole play—her emotions were constantly natural and never felt forced or melodramatic, and there were beautiful points of inflection in many of her moments of speech. Through the retelling of the events of the shooting itself all the cast complemented each other well: the more heightened and frantic nature of Emma-Louise Howell’s fantastically portrayed character nicely contrasting the more down to earth and restrained Ed Chapman. Higgins’ portrayal was also solid, if at times lacking a certain emotional climax. The sheer panic captured by the increasingly hectic overlapping lines at the climax of the scene was a powerful moment, and Barton should be credited as writer and director (with assistant Tom Harper) for creating powerful moments such as this.

To end the play, the cast returned to the stage as it opened to tell us about the aftermath and of the victims. The ensuing section of the script, focussing on the often-explored issue of American gun laws, felt excessively long and somewhat repetitive, but the actors all handled it with clear talent. The final and lasting message of remembering the victims was indeed touching, and the character descriptions coupled by the twelve projected names was certainly poignant.

For me, Screen 9 had some touching moments and a powerful and important meaning we can all take something from, but in practice some sections dragged, and with the generally static nature of the performance, this left the experience feeling a little flat at some points. This said, Barton has clearly put in a lot of work and the feat itself is an incredibly impressive one. Coupled with four strong performances this provides a lot of positives, and makes Screen 9 worth a watch for sure.

11 February 2017

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