Durham Drama Festival Day 2

A Daughter Dusty boxes in an attic emanate a sense of intrigue. Even whoever packed them doesn’t know what’s inside, their outward appearance belying the treasures they hold. And sometimes they insist on being opened.

Exploring reactions to loss, disappearance, guilt and shock, Donnchadh O’Connaill’s short, one-woman monologue deals with the opening of boxes and the unleashing of memory that this brings, alongside its release of tensions. The family web that has been skilfully weaved here was masterfully portrayed by Tash Cowley as the eponymous daughter. The ease with which she passed from fond reminiscence to natural laughter to cold destruction of evidence is testament to her command of her art and her compelling stage presence even from a cross-legged position confirms this.

The play seems to pose more questions than it answers and when the daughter in question tells us “No-one would say anything out loud,” there is a sense that there is more in what is not said than what is. Her final poignant admission that “children will always let you down” comes as fire burns away her guilt at her Father’s breakdown, but as she leaves the stage, she has left the boxes open. This rather depressing take on a family’s relationships is perhaps characteristic of O’Connaill’s writing and one that he does well. And it is certainly a play that will come back to mind again, begging reflection.

24 Hour Plays To devise, learn and rehearse a play in 24 hours, following suggestions of title and one scripted line from an audience, is no mean feat but the 8 actors performing on Thursday night pulled it off with aplomb. Whilst there were times when lines clashed and silences were slightly too long, these were the exception and each of the actors embodied a character convincingly.

The first play’s title, Who’s Afraid of Germaine Greer implied a take on feminism was in store, which was subtly achieved through the male characters’ disregard for female dignity. The plot centred around two friends, or so they appeared, chatting about women, sex and obsession. Their performances were highly engaging despite the lack of context, and both of them displayed a clear comic ability. This was accompanied by periodic monologue snapshots from a female character apparently separate to them talking about the beauty of humanity on a sunny day. Her speeches were more obviously unscripted, which did detract from her performance and character portrayal somewhat. The fourth character, whose role was difficult to define until the end, was severely underused and his presence seemed awkward and unnecessary at times.

20 Hour Foreplay was the second’s title and the product was a highly imaginative approach that played with audience expectation. Set in a school during what was presumably World War II, the “foreplay” took on the additional meaning of preparation for war. And the audience’s scripted line when it finally came was followed by a beautifully pensive silence after the “walk of shame” referred not to that early morning sneaking around but to defecting and a firing squad. The cast gave strong performances and though their characters were to some extent stereotypes, and the two-dimensional head teacher could be a tad grating, they worked together effectively. The plot could be slow moving and lose focus at times but it was compelling and ultimately successful.

Newcastle Stand-up It is difficult to know what to expect with student stand-up comedy – at times it can bring the house down and at others fall flat on its face. The Newcastle Comedy Society had what seemed at first like a tough crowd on their hands with an unfortunately somewhat less than full auditorium and a certain wariness of the unknown from the other side of the Tyne. But we were willing and they were able and what resulted was a very entertaining array of observational and anecdotal humour.

The MC of proceedings, though seemingly not entirely comfortable with his own comic ability, nonetheless managed to elicit some warm-up laughs, despite his slightly misjudged audience interaction techniques. For me, the two stand-out stand-ups were Alex Fletcher and Durham’s David Head, who were both trying out new material, some of which worked and some of which didn’t, but all of which was coherent and well-judged. Fletcher’s opening “Floors-to-go” gag was a particular favourite as was Head’s “Straight Hair” poem. There were also very strong performances from Sam Stephenson and “Nige”, whose Pringles joke will stay with me for some time, and Mark Smethers’ piece on his hometown of Birkenhead very effectively played on stereotypes. Perhaps Tom Ackworth had misread his audience but the awkward silences after some of his punch lines would suggest that others agreed they were somewhat below the belt, and for all the first act’s wit, unfortunately some of this was lost as he swallowed up the words, or distracted us with his consistent bouncing on the spot.

Overall they were more a set of chortles than belly laughs, but with some work from some on self-awareness on stage (and not referring to it), segues and audience interaction, there is a lot of potential for some great comedy performances.

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