Opening Night at DDF: Black Box at Durham Student Union.

Roadway and Bink by Ruby Lawrence

The play opens on two female characters, Roadway and Bink sitting on a sofa in a sparsely furnished space. The limited staging of the ‘Black Box’ theatre, set up especially for Durham Drama Festival, was the perfect setting to represent the claustrophobia of the characters that are trapped in this room. Their cramped existence is cleverly shown when Roadway, played by Philippa Moseley, wraps her legs awkwardly around Bink’s (Idgie Beau) head. How long they are been in the room is unclear, however cracks are beginning to form in its harmony. The audience is unsure of the characters’ identity and exactly why they are there- these questions are

never fully answered. The script maintained the opening intrigue, as we desperately tried to fit together the bits of information sparsely provided by the dialogue. They are waiting for a person called ‘Laura’ to come back for them. A character who seems to be their creator; described as the ‘yeast’ to their ‘dough’. We are unsure of the power she exerts and whether she has any connection to the radio placed mysteriously in the room.

The playfulness of the characters interaction as they imagine songs on the radio is set against the dark, unsettling presence of someone or something from outside the room that appears to control them. This is demonstrated brilliantly through a scene where Bink becomes the mouthpiece for a montage of radio broadcasts, reliant entirely on Idgie Beau’s lip-syncing. Although this scene is comedic, it also portrays the fragility of their existence, easily manipulated by a power which neither they, nor the audience, seem to understand.

This scene introduces darkness into the tone of the play, with strain beginning to show in the characters’ friendship. One scene where Bink dares to go to the edge of the room triggers Roadway’s almost paranoid fear of the outside world, as she adamantly forces Bink to back from the edge.

The bulk of the play centres on the pairs’ imaginings of what the radio in the room will play. However, after much debate they decide not to wait for ‘Laura’ to play the music, but to play it themselves. Cher’s ‘Believe’ blasts and the pair clumsily and happily dance. I could not help but find the song’s line ‘I don’t need you anymore’ as foreboding of the tension subsequently shown as Bink exerts more independence from Roadway’s controlling nature. Feeling frustrated at only being allowed one song, she begins to think of the freedom possible outside the room.

This play is full of contradictions; the girls are trapped inside the room, apparently unaware of the outside world, they do not understand the concept of a kiss, but the room contains features of the outside world – magazines and a radio. These contradictions are present in the characters too – Roadway although on the surface more knowledgeable and confident of the two is terrified of leaving the space, compared to Bink who although more child-like in nature is far more fearless.

The ideas underpinning these scenes are not explicit and its mystery is key to maintaining the audience’s attention in parts. However, at times the mystery became frustrating, with the complexity of the script being lost on the audience who at times were left rather bewildered. This was felt especially towards the end, where Roadway, although reluctance to leave the room suddenly decides to follow Bink in her escape: a decision which seems contradictory to her original reluctance. The short performance time made it difficult for these ideas to be fully developed. Its Beckett and Pinter influences were clear, but unlike these playwrights, a level of overall reasoning behind its absurdist plot was not evident.

Although its mystery was rather frustrating, the energy of Mosley and Beau maintained the comedic success of the play. They worked particularly well as a slapstick duo. Overall, the play posed more questions than it answered, however perhaps that was the intention; to engage us fully in the comedy and drama of relationships before forcing us to reflect.

Puppet State by Chris Yeates

‘Puppet State’ revolves a conversation set in a war-torn country between a female solider and a male medic who enters into her shelter during an air raid. The dialogue explores some ambitious themes; the capacity of the individual to make moral judgements, appropriate resistance to an all-powerful state and the role of propaganda in reducing humans to ‘puppets’.

The power play between them is compelling, successfully combining background information of the characters’ stories with intense of-the-moment drama. It felt as though a lot more needed to be explained about the identity of the medic, however this did not overwhelm the plot’s development. Clara Duncan’s portrayal of the paranoid soldier, suspicious of her visitor, was extremely convincing, as despite the fact that she had fewer lines, she used her body effectively in portraying the dangerous tension felt in their situation.

At times, Adam Kirkbride’s monologues fell short, as his facial expression remained static and tone of delivery fairly flat for the majority of his performance. Moreover, the short length of time it takes for Clara’s character to move from being a staunch, blind- sighted advocate of the resistance cause, to doubtful of its credibility is slightly implausible. Nonetheless, the plot was overall coherent and managed to successfully develop a strong and complicated storyline given the short performance time.

However, the strength of the dialogue seemed to be somewhat undermined by the awkward interruption of two dancers Ellis-Anne Dunmall and Michael Bryan-Earnshaw. Whilst Dunmall’s choreography was impressive, it was an annoying distraction to the development of the plot. More importantly, their purpose seemed to be lost on the audience. Their writhing on the floor seemed to be reflective of the power struggle between the two actors, although I am not sure that this theme needed to be reiterated. I felt it weakened the overall effect of the play as tension, built up so carefully, was irritatingly interrupted, spoiling its overall effect.

However, the success of the overall effect lies in its script, with its portrayal of morality in war and the power of independent thought.

Varmints by Ella Holloway

This play was centred on an exposition of the natural world threatened and overtaken by industrialisation. It opens with six female actors, dressed as some kind of animal, playing happily together upon the stage floor. This idyllic scene is suddenly interrupted by industrialisation, with a mass of people descending onto this natural world through migration. The sounds of the bees and birds are drowned out by the noise of machinery. At this point the clichéd plot of this piece of physical theatre leaves me feeling a little sceptical, however I try to persevere.

The play sets out to demonstrate the monotony of an industrialised world where constant work leads to a general sense of alienation. These ideas are vaguely interesting, but in a society where the environmental and social impact of industrialisation is fact, rather than a contentious issue, the themes raised in the piece felt tired. Indeed the lines ‘Going nowhere, going nowhere’ from Gary Jules’ song ‘Mad World’, later sung by the cast, seem to reflect plot’s development most accurately.

Moreover it felt naïve; if we must be forced to sit through a piece of theatre on the damaging effects of industrialisation, then why ignore the complexity of the issue? The blatant improvements industrialisation made to economic growth and living standards are conveniently dropped in favour of a plotline which is one step short of preaching. While I understand that it was a piece of physical theatre and not a lecture on the morality of industrialisation, it felt rather grating that these issues were handled so blithely.

The use of physical theatre was fairly successful – for example when the actors mime a cacophony of machines. However, these moments were significantly undermined by monologues reiterating the monotony of working life, a point which felt began to feel rather ironic. The fundamental idea, which was far from subtle to begin with, became far too explicit and ultimately quite boring.

The play’s ending was similarly predictable. One of the animals convinces the others that they can ‘choose’ to break out of this industrialised world. How they do this I am not entirely sure. However, once they return to the natural world they are unsure of what they see. I presume this reflects the difficulties of reclaiming a natural landscape which has already damaged by industrialisation; however this point is made so vaguely that the entire piece falls flat and I certainly doubt it provoked much soul-searching amongst the audience. Overall this was a one-note performance; not entertaining but instead rather grating.

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