first night

Durham Drama Festival 2011 - Day 2

Rebecca Mackinnon reviews Donnchadh O'Connail's 'The Daughter' and Ed Burgon's acoustic set, while Bobbi Nicholson tackles the 24-Hour Plays and a slice of Newcastle University's comedy pie.

THE DAUGHTER by Donnchadh O'Connail

This is a new play from 2009’s best writer at DDF; a monologue depicting a girl examining the circumstances of her mother’s death, and her own feelings, The Daughter suggests a dark and intimate close-up of grief and miscommunication. And dark and intimate it was. The daughter herself was played by Tash Cowley, who sat beautifully lit amidst the boxed remnants of her erstwhile mother’s life. Cowley has a lovely honesty to her acting – she gazed unflinchingly at the audience and held long silences with poise, as well as picking up subtly on the rare moments of comedy without trying to hammer them home. The play had some stunning moments of elegant prose, delicately tragic and softly insinuating, as if the author too found the subject painful and used humour to attempt to hide a barely healed wound.

However, I was disappointed by the play’s length. I felt both play and actress would have benefited hugely from an expansion of character and depth; I found the writing and Cowley fascinating, but rather than feeling a theatrically viable anticlimax at the end, I found myself instead a little confused, and left feeling like I had taken away very little from a play that should have been more provocative. Cowley’s exit to pick up the steel bin in which to burn her mother’s note (well done health and safety) felt clumsy; I saw no reason why the receptacle shouldn’t have already been onstage – the exit broke the flow of the play, and therefore the spell cast by the lovely writing and Cowley’s sweetness and intensity. I enjoyed it, but with a few tweaks it would have been something very special.

 

ED BURGON

Many moons ago, I was at school with this young man – I was surprised and delighted therefore to find him on tonight’s menu, and even more so to see he is as talented as ever. Taking a degree in folk music at Newcastle, Ed has been writing songs for years, and played us quite a variety from his repertoire, beginning with a comic song about a dodo’s lament, before moving onto a traditional tragic folk ballad, a couple of his own composition, and, most memorably, a song called Eli whose lyrics he pirated from a 5-year old quoted by his mother on Twitter. This song had hauntingly profound lyrics and brought the audience into contemplative silence. Each song’s introduction was charmingly awkward, coming from a performer clearly more at home in his music than in public speaking, and had the audience on his side right from the off – in addition to this, his voice was utterly beautiful. Honest and open, with a well-controlled and goosebump-inducing falsetto, Ed was a pleasure to listen to (I must add that due to the irritating configuration of seats and a rather large head in front of me, listening was all that was available to me, and it detracted not at all). A very enjoyable half-hour.

Reviews by Rebecca Mackinnon

24-HOUR PLAYS

For me, 24-hour plays must be appraised in the same way they are approached – with light heartedness and an understanding that only so much can be achieved in one short day. This said, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of skill applied by the diligent casts to each of the two offerings.

First up was Who’s Afraid of Germaine Greer?, a conversational comedy neatly staged with all the characters onstage throughout. Two scenes ran in parallel, with one frozen as the other came to life. Steven, Tom and Felix presented us with an energetic set of scenes portraying the evocative and often crude dialogue between two men (Felix and Tom) whilst Steven looked on, most often in silent disdain. Felix had a particularly eloquent story-telling style, taking the ‘straight man’ role to the foil of Tom’s acerbic interjections. When in full flow, Tom demonstrated expert comic timing as well as aggressively funny patter that was thrilling to watch. The subject of the boys’ musings was mostly sex, with women discussed as objects and many social scenes enacted for us with the help of a couple of chairs. Karrena’s monologues were more romantic, intermingled with some rather frantic stream of consciousness touching on the nature of relationships and relating everyday experiences. Unfortunately, the over-exuberance and speed of her delivery made it hard to follow the flow of the narrative and so part of the sense of these scenes was lost. Overall this play was a good effort by all, with particular credit to Felix and Tom. Although the resolution of events came rather out of the blue, it was still an enjoyable performance.

 

Twenty Hour Foreplay was more successful as an overall concept, with the play set in a boarding school. Beginning with two boys discussing sex and the army before lights out, the play led us through a ‘typical’ school day including assembly (with some very successful audience participation in a rousing hymn) and physical examinations from an army nurse played by a Maggie Smith-esque Hannah Howie. As schoolboys, Dave and Max had clearly defined characters with Dave making a charmingly naive 17 year-old on the cusp of adulthood. Although the dialogue was at times clumsy, the cast generally made it their own with a particularly physical performance from Hannah. Using inflections and body language to her very best advantage, Hannah gave an outstanding comedy performance as well as creating an exquisite moment of dramatic tension before giving Dave his first kiss. The scene captured perfectly the balance between kindness and impropriety inherent in the subject matter and both actors handled their role with sensitivity. Despite a rather abrupt ending, the dramatic resolution was sound and gave us a nice character development in Max from a teenager full of bluster and surety to a much more subdued young man contemplating the truth about life and war. The stronger contender of the two plays on offer, I genuinely feel that Twenty Hour Foreplay has the potential to develop further into a really interesting piece of theatre.

 NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY STAND-UP

From the brilliantly awkward introduction from compere Ollie Savory to the last whistle of approval greeting Marc Smethurst, stand-up comedy from Newcastle University was a smorgasbord of delights. The sets were a mixed bag of accomplishment reflecting the relative experience of the performers but these were sensitively scheduled to effectively show off the full range of style and talent on offer.

First act Jonny Pelham began proceedings with a sweetly understated set containing great storytelling and a shockingly simple punchline on the topic of a failed love affair that had me instantly in hysterics for its sheer unexpectedness. Sam Steventon gave an energetic and pacy performance touching on subjects from crap (geddit?) toilet humour, to hamster suicide culminating in the genius pun-infested headline, “Tiny Dancer killed in Disco Inferno started by Dancing Queen in YMCA – Village People shocked!” Alan Fletcher’s set was confident and charismatic with some great material, including some of the best audience banter of the evening on the subject of purple-topped milk (who knew?) and surprise guest Dave Head, of Durham fame, was characteristically deadpan and gave some charmingly quippy poetry that went down a treat. Tom Acworth followed with a glum set full of awkward self-deprecation and bad taste that shouldn’t have worked but charmed the audience nonetheless.

The 6th act (whose name I have simply as ‘Nige’) was my favourite of the evening, sporting the greatest comedy t-shirt I’ve ever read: Roses are red, Violets are blue, I have Alzheimer’s, Cheese on toast. This performer has a wonderful stage presence, with a lovely humility and understated confidence that had us all on his side from the off. His material, including a fantastic observational piece about the difficulty with Pringles tubes for fat people that had us in stitches, was consistently strong and his generous humour kept the laughs coming.

Closing the show was Marc Smethurst with an engaging set that I barely wrote notes on because I was too busy laughing. Particularly impressive was his thoughtful material that neatly linked the first joke to the last and included some well-pitched content for the largely student audience. Discussing his dad and their relationship resonated perfectly with the honest feel of the rest of the set.

Reviews by Bobbi Nicholson

25 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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