first night

Durham Drama Festival 2011 - Day 3

Donnchadh O'Connail and Jonnie Grande review all of Friday night's offerings at the Assembly Rooms

THE BOX by Andy Kempster


The first thing any musical writer has to decide is whether to have the show poke fun at itself or play it straight. Andy Kempster hedged his bets: there were a few meta-theatrical flourishes near the beginning, but these were largely sidelined as the piece became a straightforward exploration of friendship and love. Doug Gibbs played Tom, a man who has cut himself off from his friends; Sarah Peters and Joe Leather were the erstwhile companions, who also provided much of the narration through direct address to the audience.

The music, performed offstage on piano and guitar, was simple, which meant it was easy to follow each song, but the degree of repetition tended to lessen the emotional edge. Compounding this was the fact that the lyrics, and to a certain extent the characters singing them, felt somewhat generic. There were too few interesting details to draw us into the situation, or to make clear what exactly the characters wanted. Nor were we told why Tom had entered the box, which meant that it was never clear what was at stake in his struggle, or the effort of his friends to reconnect with him.

Because of this, much of the emotional weight of the production fell on the performances. I felt Peters was most successful here; she has a naturally expressive voice and manner, and wrung the right amount of feeling out of her laments. Gibbs was earnest, but I felt his voice didn’t have the shading necessary to convey Tom’s plight. In addition, the staging was often rather static. I appreciate that Tom is meant to be trapped, but when singing he is expressing his inner turmoil, and it seemed odd that neither he nor the others did so through movement or gesture. The one noteworthy exception was Leather’s use of mime and expressive gestures in his song recounting a disastrous trip to Scotland.

            The Box was by no means a bad piece of writing, and it was very competently staged and performed, but it came across as more of a first draft than the finished article. Whether or not it can become something more is a matter of whether or not Kempster can find a new approach to a subject-matter which is interesting, but perhaps a little over-familiar.



DUST by Samuel Jefferson


The meta-literary games were more sustained in Dust, a new play performed by Newcastle University Theatre Society. Two characters from the present day find themselves trapped in various classic novels, a venerable comic conceit (consider Woody Allen’s short story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’) but potentially a rich source of amusement. For a while, Dust proved well capable of delivering this. The first half, a succession of literary pastiches, felt rather like a sketch show, with broad acting and occasionally blocking to match (as in the Sherlock Holmes section, with the classic sketch formation of four actors in a line across stage). There were undoubtedly funny moments to be had, though writer/director Samuel Jefferson, playing one of the leads, seemed to award almost all of them to himself. This minor act of megalomania was, as it happened, justified by his sharp delivery and excellent timing, with George Aldridge an effective foil.

The play unfortunately decided to sprout a plot in the middle of proceedings, which led to the less enjoyable spectacle of the cast having to take proceedings seriously. Admittedly, this culminated in a ridiculous segue between The Maltese Falcon and My Fair Lady, complete with Richard Speir dancing with a lampshade, but the production was at its best when balanced between clever writing and outright silliness. If the plot could be developed without losing these elements, then the show could become a sweet postmodern fable. As it was, it felt a little too slight to work as a drama, and a little too one-dimensional to be a thoroughly successful comedy.



A WORLD WITHOUT WORDS by Frances Teehan and Jonnie Grande


Interpretative dance: the two most terrifying words in the English language. Director Jonnie Grande and choreographer Frances Teehan were presumably aware that their chosen medium has a fearsome reputation for pretentious bombast and impenetrable twaddle. A World Without Words gave the lie to such preconceptions by the simple device of having a plot. Boy meets girl, cheats on girl, they reconcile but ultimately drift apart, girl ends up a lonely old woman. Not theatrical rocket science, I admit; the science (and craftsmanship, and art) was all in the telling.

And what telling! The story meant that in most scenes we had a pretty good idea of what was happening, and could understand the movements unfolding before us as more than a series of striking but hermetic gestures. It sounds simple, but at its most effective it was exhilarating. Take the opening scene: a party, with four couples performing slick but pretty standard raunchy moves. Enter the leads, Emma Cave and Richie Wong, who stand blinking at the spectacle. The other eight dancers, without ever overtly signalling so, act in concert towards them, nudging them together and producing a chain reaction through the whole cast when they meet. Peer pressure, an atmosphere charged with sexual tension, acting in the heat of the moment; you could write a scene about this stuff, but how much less visceral (and sexy) would that be? Sometimes it’s better to shut up and dance.

Excellent dancing (and choreography) were also in evidence in smaller-scale scenes. Cave and Wong perform a duet illustrating their relationship; they quarrel, Cave leaves, and Wong performs a duet with another woman (Korantema Anyimadu, stunning in a red coat), recapitulating many of the movements from the previous dance. Cave re-enters, finds the red coat, dances briefly with it, then dashes it to the floor. A World Without Words sets out to tell a story in which words are not so much absent as superfluous, and much of the pleasure lies in admiring how brilliantly it succeeds in this.

Of course, the pedants among us smugly noted that this world was not strictly without words, as the lyrics of the songs were occasionally referred to in the dancing and acting. More seriously, some of the musical choices were distinctly drippy. The (un-ironic) use of ‘Fix You’, a song which manages to assimilate affairs of the heart to a service you might expect in a garage, was only the most egregious example.

This indicates what might be the most serious issue of all: powerful as it was, I felt the production struggled to convey more nuanced and subtle emotions. I am venturing this as a criticism of the piece; it may be, however, that this is actually a limitation of the medium, that interpretative dance tends by its nature towards the expressive and the spectacular. I don’t have the expertise to support a strong opinion one way or the other, but certain moments suggested the possibility of a more subtle approach: Cave nuzzling Wong during their quarrel; the shocking stillness when the couples, arrayed in a circle, stare at Anyimodu, standing outside it. Some different tropes – stillness, smaller movements, and perhaps gesturing or dancing in silence – might have helped Cave and Wong to better express some of what they undergo, as well as varying the slightly uniform texture of their dances together.

Such criticisms should, however, be seen in their proper context: this was the most exciting Durham show I’ve seen so far this year. It was so good that even the standing ovation didn’t spoil it for me (much).






     A good rule of thumb for assessing sketch troupes is how much they rely on shock humour, randomness, and pop cultural references; and in particular whether they use these as sources for humour, or substitutes for it. The opening sketches from Mugging Chickens set my teeth on edge: I was merrily ticking the boxes marked ‘gruesomely predictable riff on child abuse’, and ‘gratuitous rape reference’. Fortunately, this kind of thing was kept to a minimum thereafter. There was still plenty of pop culture and unexplained silliness, but also charm, some engaging performances, and a leavening of wit.

     The Chickens are four young men, one of whom (Robert Clarke) is a student at Durham. Their strengths lie in striking visual characterisations (a giant tortoise, the sinking of the Titanic, ET), some lovely lines (my favourite being a comparison of the aforementioned extra-terrestrial with elbow skin), and the relaxed interaction between the group members. At its best, the show felt like four friends messing about onstage, skipping from idea to idea and inviting us to giggle along with them. On those terms, it’s fair to say it worked reasonably well, and the audience generally seemed to enjoy it. A more demanding approach would note that the acting and blocking could be a lot tighter, that there was very little writing that was genuinely surprising or unusual, and consequently that one would have difficulty picking this group out of a sketch comedy line-up. As with much else in the DDF, it’s a question of what standards you think are relevant. I think the group could do a lot better, but in fairness they did enough for a late-night Assembly Rooms crowd.


Reviews by Donnchadh O’Connail




Waiting for Dogfish was a brave piece. The writing, in which as much was left unsaid as was said, and in which more was left undone than done, required a gutsy self-confidence. The direction and performances frequently met the challenges posed by such a script, never shying away from the long silences and pauses critical to a play reflecting on indecision. As Eva (Elizabeth O’Conner) taunts Joseph (Hannah Ryan) that he would never sleep again if she didn’t save the trapped dogfish, they raise our fear that we may forever be haunted by the things we don’t do. And just before the final denouement, the script leaves two questions hanging: do we convince ourselves the situation isn’t as bad as we thought once we realise we can’t do anything about it, or do we exaggerate problems in the first instance because we want to feel needed and act the hero?

But despite the play’s premise seeming to promise so much, the script and production lacked the gravitas required to force us to confront these issues head-on. Whilst the infantile dialogue was neatly observed by writer Ellen Diver, the script seemed to falter at key moments. The decision to place all the action upstage didn’t aid these instances, dissolving any tension that was built up. O’Conner’s transition from fighting to save the dogfish to simply waiting for the tide to come in was also a little too contrived. Whilst it had the potential to ask some probing questions, and the script’s structure was well chosen as a vehicle to do that, it was perhaps the subject matter that ultimately left us unable to fully connect.


Review by Jonnie Grande


27 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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