Durham Drama Festival Day 4

Last Saturday the Durham Drama Festival came on strong to give the awaiting audience their fourth dose of theatrical goodness in the form of three very moving pieces: My Husband the Secret Policeman, Closer and Steve And Then It Ended.

The light opens on a minimalistic set; desk, light, brief case, with the sole picture of Magritte’s offsetting painting “The Lovers” pinned to the back wall. Vague recordings indicate national unrest before we are introduced to David Carver, guilt-ridden and waiting, as tonight he has to kill.

We rewind to where it all began and to a more blasé Carver, who jokes about his unfulfilling job as an accountant. His successful, rather forthright, friend encourages him to take up one of the new opportunities arising as an officer under “The Party” whose ambitions are as ambiguous as their name. Carver goes from gauche accountant to the secret police, but never really takes to the role. He drifts through protocol, isolated, discovering that the organisation he has become part of does very little public protection, especially when they don their balaclavas.

The intrigue builds after we meet the naturally played, gentle prisoner C13, whom Carver must question every day about his associations. This causes Carver to reminisce about his own relationships, such as his estranged marriage to the troubled and beautiful cellist, as well as his close friendships which have weakened under the strain of work.

We find out more and more about the largely “anti-terrorist” organisation as Carver gets closer to C13. However the relationship between the officer and the prisoner can’t end well and Carver is force to put on his mask and become executioner. This and his growing relationship with his friend’s wife finally spur him to run away from “The Party”. However the head of the division is not too happy about him running away with his wife who, neglected, turns to Carver for affection. Carver is given a choice: one of them must be killed.

Carver makes his choice and we wonder if he will carry out the execution revealed at the beginning of the play. The climax of lies in the suspense rather than the action, which was effectively built up and held by the characters in the blistering final scene. The performances were truly distressing as Carver put on his mask and held the gun to his boss’s wife’s head then on himself while we waited for the shot that didn’t come.

The conversational tone worked largely effectively against the sinister undertones, bringing more comedy to the piece and the casting was great. The lead, played by Tom McNulty, and his boss, played by Fergus Leatham, remained likeable, and ultimately relatable, despite being dragged deep into the immoral circumstances.

Next up was Closer by Patrick Marber, and in this play we find ourselves getting “Closer” than was comfortable to the intricacies and love affairs of four confused individuals. It’s a brutal dissection of the all the lust, lies and drama that can possibly exist between so small a group who ultimately love and hate each other to equal degrees.

Alice, a kittenish strip club worker, is hit by a car and taken to the hospital by aspiring writer Dan. Alice falls obsessively in love with Dan, but some time down the line he finds himself drawn to Anna, an unattainable photographer. After Anna knocks him back, Dan decides to play a prank on her, pretending to be her on an explicit dating site. This leads to a very comic scene and leads sexually frustrated Doctor Larry to Anna’s favourite hangout. Dan’s plan backfires when it culminates in Larry and Anna’s marriage, but it doesn’t stop him pursuing her. And the result? A series of dramatic break-ups, scandals and double affairs leading to the breakdown of all relationships involved.

Despite the many happenings and drama of the piece the theme seemed one dimensional and the recurring switches detracted from the pace, though this was improved by the clever use of a split set, which meant we could witness two couples together at once.

Some scenes I found a little too overbearing, especially those of the break-ups, and often too much emphasis was placed on certain sentimental themes, for example, Alice loving the way Dan cuts the crusts of his sandwiches.

The fickleness of the characters also meant I found it difficult to sympathise with their plight. The piece was however brimming with clever dialogue and insightful observations, one of my favourites being the secret meaning of euphemisms. Overall, though intense, sometimes to the point of awkwardness, I found Closer cleverly directed and enjoyable.

The last play I had the pleasure of viewing was Steve and Then It Ended by Adam Usden. Entirely funny and believable, it was my personal favourite of the night. The whole piece is set in an ordinary family’s kitchen whilst they watch the approaching light signalling the apocalypse, but they can’t quite break habit, its still fish fingers for tea.

Everyman Steve, played by Gareth Davies, describes the strange light that brought him to the dimly lit stage; is he the last man on earth or pulled into a lonely death? His comic, Peter Kay-esque narration was deceptively light for what was to become a poignant piece as he recounts his family’s last day before the end. Despite the heavy theme, I found the piece kept up its light. Dramatic scenes were instantly brought back to earth by the comedy; admitting an affair can definitely be lightened if it happened to be with someone with a name like Berol.

Steve’s son Dan played by Paul Moss was completely lovable (I still can’t decide whether he was sweet and stupid or a genius) but for me the show was stolen by Tessa Coates as Steve’s wife. Her incredible moving farewell to her son had me welling up as she recalls his birth and the first time he wore a shirt to a party; her and Steve waiting outside fifteen minutes in case he wanted to come home, was a realistic touch that reminded me of my parents. The down to earth speech, in addition to fitting well with the style of comedy, made the atmosphere of the family’s home tangible.

Steve and his wife talk over their marriage when all the lights suddenly go out and the stage erupts into screams. This added a frightening kick but ultimately the end is touchingly peaceful; the couple, loving each other but no longer in love, go out dancing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if half the audience were ringing loved ones afterwards, just to let them know how much they love them.

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