first night

Durham Drama Festival 2017: The Black Box

Sam Westwood enjoys a night of drama and comedy at this year's Black Box venue.


Isabelle Culkin’s Rose is a masterpiece of subtlety. The premise is a simple one: Rose is 21 and pregnant; Mark, who has been seeing Rose for the last few weeks, might or might not be the father. With only three actors, no props, and a minimalist set consisting simply of two chairs, the production is also daringly simple in its execution. This simplicity serves to emphasise the exceptional strength of Culkin’s writing and the brilliance of the cast. The result is a deeply moving exploration of youth, love and responsibility.

The three cast members each put in superb performances. Rosie Minnitt immediately commanded all of our attention in her portrayal of Rose. Her opening monologue was delivered with great skill, giving us a deep insight into her character right from the start. Another great strength was Minnitt’s highly convincing physicality in depicting her developing pregnancy (wisely, Culkin decided not to go for some kind of cushion-up-the-jumper solution). Minnitt’s restless energy contrasted brilliantly with the steady, understated presence of Mark (Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin). Tyzack-Carlin’s portrayal of shambling male awkwardness when we first met him was truly delightful to behold, and his character developed fascinatingly throughout the play. Minnitt and Tyzack-Carlin make an exceptional pairing, and there were some hilarious moments earlier on as they stumbled into their relationship. Despite making a relatively late entrance into the play’s action, Sophie Allen also managed to make a considerable impact as Mark’s sister, Niamh.

The play’s action flowed beautifully throughout, with monologues seguing seamlessly into dialogues and back again. The characters’ movements around the stage were cleverly and subtly arranged in order to give a sense of different spaces and environments, which were also accentuated by simple yet effective light changes. If I had one tiny micro-quibble, it would be that the final section of the play felt a little disconnected from the rest of the action—but this barely detracted from the overall effect. Rose is a fantastic success and it deserves high praise from the DDF judges.

The Not So Divine Comedy

The contrast between Freddie Drewer’s The Not So Divine Comedy and the play which precedes it cannot be overstated. Drewer’s play immediately plunges us into a world of heightened comedy and exaggerated innuendo. The plot follows Rachel (Alex Hannant), the author of several books of erotica, who is led by the angel Cupid (Millie Blair) into the fantasy world of her own latest novel. There she comes across two contrasting visions of the ideal man who must fight for her love: the soulful, artistic Moody Blues (Max Lindon) and the hyper-macho Edwardio (Ed Rees). There is also a parallel plot involving Cupid’s relationship with God (Dan Hodgkinson), who has his own mysterious purposes. The whole thing is a tad convoluted, and I thought that the script would benefit from some editing. Nevertheless, the play maintains a spirit of silly irreverence throughout, and there are some cracking one-liners which got great responses from the audience.

Director Hamish Inglis has skilfully infused the show with a pantomime-like sense of daftness. It’s clear that this is a cast who have had a lot of fun together in rehearsals, and Inglis is to be commended for capturing this atmosphere and bringing it to the stage. It was a bit of a shame that this atmosphere was occasionally deflated by clunky blackouts during scene changes: ideally these should be reduced in number or accompanied by music in order to maintain the play’s energy. The play’s greatest strength was its cast, who all put in solid performances. Special mention must go to Hannant for her amusing and endearing portrayal of down-to-earth Rachel, and to Lindon and Rees for their brilliant double-act as the two contrasting male suitors. Costume designer Amber Donovan should also be commended for really adding to the play’s visual impact.

A bit of tweaking here and there would make a big difference to The Not So Divine Comedy. At the moment, it feels a little bit uneven in its pacing and its tone, and the audience seemed a little taken aback by some of the show’s more risqué moments. Nevertheless, the show is undeniably funny, imaginative and makes an interesting comment on the culture of internet erotica.

Cold Fronts and Hot Flushes: The Short Stories of Kevin Spacey

Now this one is something special. Andrew Shires’ play is a delight, oozing with wit and imagination. The plot concerns Olly (George Rexstrew), a ghostwriter for celebrities, and his best friend Emily (Claire Forster). Olly is currently engaged with producing a set of stories to be published under the name of Kevin Spacey. However, Kevin Spacey himself has also sent Olly several stories of his own. The play’s main focus consists of Olly and Emily acting out these stories for all of us to enjoy. This format clearly shows the influence of Shires’ experience of writing sketches for The Durham Revue, and plays to his comedic strengths. His co-direction of the show with Ambika Mod, another long-standing member of the Revue, ensured that the humour was spot on.

Rexstrew and Forster made a fantastic team. They both demonstrated great skill in portraying an extremely wide range of characters in each of the short stories. A particular strength of the play was the way in which the tone of each story differed, with some done in a naturalistic way, and others highly stylised and surreal. Rexstrew and Forster glided between these different styles seemingly effortlessly. The stories themselves were brilliantly mad: often bizarre, sometimes poignant, and always unpredictable. The audience lapped up the comedy, with huge belly laughs throughout. Staging was simple and unpretentious, with clever and subtle use of lighting to convey different atmospheres and settings for each of the stories.

All in all, there’s not a lot I can provide other than glowing praise—although maybe the backstory of Olly and Emily could do with fleshing out a little. The play is held together by a lovely sense of whimsy and fun, and it makes a cracking end to a superb night at The Black Box. 

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.
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