first night

The Crunch

Uday Duggal gets a taste of some new writing with Buttered Toast's second showcase of the year.

Last night, Buttered Toast added a second delectable layer to its swiftly-emerging sandwich: The Crunch. Building on the success of last term’s debut original-writing showcase, The Spread, the tastemakers of Buttered Toast returned once more to Empty Shop—its charming, slightly ramshackle toolshed for tinkering and trying out new things. For those still in the dark, Buttered Toast, the brainchild of co-presidents Qasim Salam, Jasmine Price, and Fergus Neville, is a new DST theatre company carving out a niche in Durham for showcasing new material, be it comedic, serious, musical, or something completely different.

This ‘review’ will work a little differently, too, serving foremost as a sort of introduction to Buttered Toast and the diverse ideas packed into The Crunch. Picking apart performances or hauling up specific material for critique would be antithetical to Buttered Toast’s emphasis on creating a comfortable, accessible arena for experimentation. That’s not to suggest for a second that the works were patchy or hit-or-miss; far from it. On the contrary, the consistent quality of the evening’s performances was remarkable, especially for new writing. It’s merely that the point here lies in creating a play-space for trying out new things, free from excessive external scrutiny. New material is given a chance to find its feet within the intimate walls of Empty Shop and strengthened with feedback from small audiences and fellow writers, before, hopefully, striding out onto larger stages.

It’s a simple idea, but a good one, a needed one; the Durham Drama Festival and other established platforms for showcasing original writing, like Durham’s comedy troupes, impose restrictions in terms of length, format or selected numbers, frequently leaving developing writers with limited avenues to showcase their work. Enter Buttered Toast, and with it a space for comedy writers such as Sam Rietbergen, Sebastian Higgins, Ed Rees and Alex Taylor, who collaborated on a series of brilliant sketches, culminating in a playful ‘diss track’ aimed at The Durham Revue. Rietbergen and Taylor are about as convincing as gangsta-rappers as Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords (a reference worth investigating, I promise), and that premise was every bit as hilarious as it sounds.

Another really lovely opportunity presented by The Crunch was the chance to showcase not just new acts, but new sides to stalwarts of the Durham theatre scene. Luke Maskell, for instance, has already been a side-splitting force with The Durham Revue for over a year, but here jumped up to perform stand-up for the very first time. Stand-up comedy is obviously a wildly different beast from the sketch format, shining a spotlight on the personal as it strips away the comfort of being concealed by characters. But it also strips away the format’s constraints, and Maskell did superbly with the freedom and latitude stand-up affords, drawing on personal anecdotes from his time working at TK Maxx and interlacing his experiences with witty, pointed perspectives on class, speech and Southerners.

Other examples of this showcasing-new-sides phenomenon were in abundance. Carrie Gaunt has been rightly lauded over her time in Durham as an immensely gifted actor, but we have The Crunch to thank for giving many of us a first glimpse of her talent as a writer; ‘A Good Girl’ was beyond powerful. Carrie’s writing, creditably performed by Angharad Phillips, was evocative enough to help build for us a bridge of empathy, reaching out towards minds beset by obstacles too often misunderstood and dismissed.

Elsewhere, The Crunch also allowed writers who have had their work showcased an opportunity to experiment with crafting shorter pieces, or test out excerpts from upcoming full-length works. Alice Clarke, whose Daisy’s Dead was performed at this year’s DDF, here showcased App, a tightly-written, amusing piece revolving around four somewhat inept developers scrambling to come up with a suitable app idea. The premise is excellent, lending itself to a delightful, rib-tickling selection of inane app concepts; I would love to see where a full-length version takes the bumbling foursome.

Finally, another scenario in which more would always be welcome arrived with showcase-closer Soham De. A remarkable musician, with a knack for inspiring awed silences. He has a rare appreciation of dynamics, lovely, fleeting filigrees of melody swelling perfectly into frenetic strumming, combining perfectly with De’s voice itself, a sort of hushed roar that puts a lump in your throat and a smile on your lips at the same time. De was one of the performers at Buttered Toast’s first showcase, and has gone from strength to strength since, having recently headlined a show in Newcastle. The possibilities for all the talent on display this time round at The Crunch are just as exciting. If you missed out this time, there’ll be plenty more from this bunch, including opportunities to contribute—so look out for Buttered Toast’s upcoming projects next term, including a full-length show!    

12 March 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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