first night

Durham Drama Festival 2011 - Day 4

Danny Turner, Fergus Leathem and Jonnie Grande take on a dystopian future, a tangled love story, the end of the world and DIM on the final day of DDF


Matthew Urwin’s My Husband, The Secret Policeman was one of the best things I saw at this year’s festival. The script was intelligent and well written, without a sign of the awkwardness so often present in student writing.

The play opens with the narrator, David Carver (Tom McNulty) immediately offering what we were to expect of the play with “I’m going to kill someone.” The play then dismisses linear action and traces how David got himself into this position. We meet Samuel Wright (Fergus Leathem), a secret policeman for The Party; Helen (Olivia Stuart-Taylor)—his wife—and Louise (Kate Hunter), David’s estranged wife. Finally, C721, the convicted Felix Stevenson.

By far the most touching scenes of the play were those between McNulty and Stevenson. Developing from a balaclava-clad interview in a cell, each time the two were on stage the audience saw more and more development. The climax of this relationship was the scene before C7’s execution. In a touching revelation to C7 that he used to be an accountant, David breaks down the anonymity between the two by revealing his name to the prisoner. C7 then becomes more than a prisoner -  he becomes Thomas Wood, and admits that he is scared. Stevensons’ portrayal of this touching moment, from the laughter at David’s previous employment as an accountant to this breakdown sent a shiver through me, and McNulty’s confession of “me too” was equally chilling.

In an incredibly similar situation, the development of David and Helen’s relationship was sincere and tender also. Clearly more than friends towards the end of the play, Stuart Taylor’s chilling screams as she is forced by the balaclava’d David to kneel on the floor with her hands on her head, exactly how C721 had before his execution, was the most horrific part. Her weeping and trembling was disturbing, and maybe could have even gone further.

The importance of the human connection was (for me) made apparent by the fact that the whole thing was punctuated by eerie cello music (Helen was a cellist), which seemed to give it a pulse, one that started to beat for the audience too. The way in which David took the audience back in time to work through to the present, and then in contrast took the audience backwards in order to remember the relationship with his wife was incredibly intelligent. As he progresses within The Party, the relationship with his wife regresses, both literally and within the script. Hunter also contributed to the strength of this show with her emotional range, and played Louise differently in each scene, subtly emphasising the physical effect of David’s decisions.

Though perhaps in need of closer line learning from Leathem, the terror he invoked was persistent, and the whole thing was frightening. A great script, great performances and well deserving of another opportunity to showcase this wealth of talent outside of the festival.

Review by Danny Turner


CLOSER by Patrick Marber

Closer is a play (and film) much lauded and awarded with Baftas, Golden Globes and Oliviers alike. This offering, from one of the visiting companies to the festival, Sheffield University Theatre Company (SUTCO), whilst not climbing to those great heights, was certainly an interesting performance. Given that the company had even less time than most to arrange the logistics of their show in an unfamiliar venue, they deserve a great deal of credit.

Cleverly staged and lit, the use of different areas of the stage to indicate a number of different locations running concurrently was well used. For a show not initially staged in the Assembly Rooms, it was cleverly reworked, with the cutting between several locations especially good during the parallel break up sequence and the initial online meeting of the two male protagonists. In addition, the use of looped music running through the majority of the scenes added a kind of metronomic quality to the show, although the (mercifully) brief appearance of Rihanna near the interval did feel unnecessary and almost crass.

The performances were generally strong. Given that there are only four characters whose love-lives interchange and intersect at a bewildering pace and the relative length of the play, it would be easy to become lost or for the play to sag without talented actors purveying the story. The manner in which they performed what is to my mind a slow-paced script has to be given praise; maintaining a level of energy to keep the audience engaged is not easy, especially with a generally static play like Closer. Particular credit must go to Paul Hillier for his D’afta winning portrayal of the manipulative Larry, (although to apportion the moniker of ‘manipulative’ to any one character in Closer seems foolish) playing the contrast between the wounded lover and destructive user with great skill.

The main problem with the play is that, as mentioned earlier, it is so slow-paced. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by the director, but it appears that almost every line is placed as a rhetorical question to which an answer is given anyway after extensive thought. This did tend to create moments where the piece dragged somewhat, and I found myself wishing for some snappy dialogue to spice things up somewhat.

Having said that, that should not take away from what was an enjoyable addition to the festival. Hopefully Sheffield will be able to return next time round with something else that the people of Durham can appreciate.

Review by Fergus Leathem



Steve And Then It Ended is a beautifully crafted piece, both in writing and production. Following one family’s reactions to the impending apocalypse, it is a poignant, at times darkly comic, micro-study of a world in crisis; here is a subject usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters explored in an intimate, even suffocating, setting, where what we don’t see carries more weight than many a special effect could. We may know the ending before the play has really begun, but that never hinders the rising tension, nor prevents the play from hurtling towards the precipice.

Writer Adam Usden’s sudden changes in pace are instrumental to this success, adding great texture to the dialogue as they perfectly capture the constantly shifting mood, lack of stability and frantic emotional turmoil of such a situation, rapid transitions that were expertly handled by the cast. Equally, some striking imagery (the mother wiping her nose on a tea towel, a husband and wife sharing their last moments lit only by candlelight), prevented us from ever settling down too comfortably.

But the play’s great power lies in a startling juxtaposition: we are confronted throughout by a seemingly loving, close-knit and supportive family yet we learn, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so, that below the surface, in ordinary life, things are not so cosy. Tessa Coates in particular, as loving wife and mother Annie, never stopped simmering, however hard she tried to put up a front and make the family’s last hours all nice. The suggestion – perhaps made a little too forcibly – that when things are put into perspective we may be surprised at what turns out most important to us, remained suitably unsettling.

To come full circle, though, it is perhaps the very subject matter of the play that leaves the play lacking the subtlety to really pack a punch. The plot device feels too obvious for such a perceptive script, seeming to clunk whilst the dialogue raced along. This lack of subtlety, however, was compounded somewhat by Gareth Davies as philandering father Steve, frequently inaudible and never more than demonstrating.

These minor quibbles aside, Steve And Then It Ended is an accomplished piece of writing complemented perfectly here by a bleak, atmospheric production.



The Durham Improvised Musical is usually enough of a treat in itself, but given that everything about DDF has been stepped up this year, DIM were keen not to be left behind. To round off proceedings in the Assembly Rooms this year, musical improvisers both past and present reunited for one unique, swashbuckling show. For those of us worried about the degree of chaos that might ensue if all thirteen DIMmers were let loose on the stage together, the format quickly put us at ease: the group would randomly be split into two, each improvising their own tuneful show. The catch? At the end of the first musical, the audience would decide which character they wanted to see return in the second. Cue dogfight, as Ben Salter, Ollie Lynes and Sam Watkinson fought tooth and nail for the chance to extend their evening’s work.

Lynes, relishing the opportunity to play a one-hooked magical pirate, eventually emerged victorious from My Mother Ran Away With a Taxidermist, joining Matt Johnson, Mike Shaw and Joe Leather amongst others to investigate The Mystery of the Purple Fox. But the surprises didn’t stop there. The introduction of the time-bending chimes, hurling the characters back in time to recreate the event just referred to, forced the performers to think quicker on their feet than usual; indeed, the speed at which a Westminster office was replaced by a communal effort to recreate a Royal Navy ship almost brought on a bout of sea-sickness. Ok, the standard of improvisation was less than uniform across the performers, but DIM is a team effort, with the stronger always on hand to pull the weaker out of trouble.

And what a team effort. This was a fast-paced lesson in physical comedy, full of forgotten names and missed accents, and the audience loved every minute.

Reviews by Jonnie Grande

28 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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