first night

Durham Drama Festival 2011 - Day 1

Sam Kingston-Jones reviews 'Suicide Letter Love Note' by David Head, 'Swan Ache' by Nick Arnold and a new offering of sketch comedy by Just Deserts.

Suicide Letter Love Note by David Head

From the quirky Juno-esque opening soundtrack, Suicide Letter Love Note establishes its charming tone and sustains it throughout. The story of an unrequited lover’s decision to kill himself, the play is a gloriously simple but precise comedy of awkwardness and insecurity.

Whilst the play’s trajectory is undoubtedly predictable and the majority of audience members will be able to predict the eventual denouement, there is always the feeling that you are in safe hands. Every aspect of the production contributes to the tone of the piece and there is a genuine feeling of harmony throughout –  the direction matches the writing in its simplicity, as does the set, comprised solely of three black blocks, which moves swiftly in tandem with the image of the scene's setting, projected on to the back wall.

However, to say that the play is totally lacking in complexity is to do it a severe injustice. Writer and Director David Head finds fresh resonance in the familiar persona of the unlikely lad; played with understated charisma by Steffan Griffiths, Jack is immediately likeable and incredibly witty. His hilarious one-liners, helped along by great comic timing, had the audience in stitches and comedy is clearly where the playwright feels most comfortable.

However, as the tone becomes more tragic the playwright loses confidence and falls back on his humour, a break in momentum that is aggravated by the increased presence of a female character lacking in authenticity. Despite Harriet Tarpy's best attempts to find a higher level of truth in her character, there are times when Susan feels little more than a foil to Jack's comedy. As a result, the emotional weight of Jack's final decision is somewhat lessened.

Suicide Letter Love Note is unquestionably witty and gleaming with charm but it lacks the darkness that the original concept of suicide promised.


Swan Ache by Nick Arnold

Having recently seen the somewhat intense Black Swan, Swan Ache was a refreshingly irreverent look at perceptions of high culture. A group of six girlfriends are obsessed with the same guy but none of them ever take the opportunity to make a move and, nothing happens. Years later, and a surprise invites takes them all to the ballet, what they see defies their expectations completely.

It was only looking back at the performance that I realised just how static the show had been. For the most part, six actresses were merely sitting in a row of chairs. However, dim, unflattering lighting and their positioning at the front of the stage allowed for a personal and engaging performance. Once the show had gained momentum it rarely lost it and a variety of physicality and voice constantly kept our eyes and ears amused.

Ironically, the show was at its weakest during physically active sections. Whilst the opening chaos was intriguing, the movements that followed were amateurish, as if each actress were spontaneously choreographing herself.

But on sitting down the girls regain composure and a sense of unity. Beginning with comedy, Swan Ache is not spectacularly witty but nonetheless comfortable to watch. However, what starts out as predictable humour concerning the anxieties of modern women develops into a genuinely moving piece about a common feminine identity.

Despite frequently sharing lines and tone with one another, each actress successfully gives subtly individual performance. Furthermore, it is to the credit of the acting and writing that in the almost total absence of dialogue within the group, we still get a sense of the dependence they place on one another.

The moving climax of the peace may owe a lot to Tchaikovsky, but the mere concept of the ending was courageous and tenderly executed by a capable cast and director. Some male members of the audience may be left cold by Swan Ache but for those that do connect with the characters, you will forgive it for all its initial flaws.


Just Deserts

After deliberating at length on how to ease my way into this review, I eventually decided that honesty was the only policy. Just Deserts' latest comedy sketch show may be structurally incoherent and lacking in tonal consistency, but these flaws are incidental when what is fundamentally lacking is wit.

The company cannot be criticised for their ambitious enthusiasm in experimenting with a wide variety of settings, characters and comic mediums. There is clearly a great capacity for innovation within the group, basing sketches around adverts, news reports and even war poetry, but the sad truth is that none of these were developed in a humorous way.

Each new setting introduced new comic opportunities but none of these were used effectively. Instead, the humour rarely moved past stereotypes of students as hippies and the Swiss as neutral, the latter stereotype not really warranting three sketches. The overall effect was somewhat demoralising, especially when certain members of the cast were among those unable to keep a straight face during the show.

In terms of production, a poor script was not helped by poor comic timing although Steffi Walker deserves a mention for her convincing portrayal of an unfailingly cheery Scottish news presenter. The staging however was relatively monotonous as there was no attempt to visually create the settings in the sketches. Alabama was staged in what had previously been a living room and the presence of a war office computer in a Swiss delicatessen was completely baffling.

Nonetheless, a large number of the audience genuinely found Just Deserts hilarious. So, don't let this review sway you as you may well enjoy it. I guess humour is subjective.


24 February 2011

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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