As you can probably guess, I am passionate about the theatre and try to see and experience as much drama as I can. But as any regular theatre-goer well knows, there are but two down sides to this most rewarding of past-times: theatre-going is a particularly time consuming hobby, and one can often have to make a difficult choice between several productions on any given night, as they tend to come in waves which can be very irritating. If only there was a way you could watch three plays on the trot of an evening, and all for a very reasonable price… Once a year, and for one fantastic week, the dream becomes a reality.
There’s no denying it: the Durham Drama Festival, four wonderful nights of classy and inventive theatre staged during February each year, is the cream of Durham’s theatrical calendar and has been so for over three decades now. DDF is a true showcase of the creativity and flair of Durham students, be they writers, performers, directors, producers or technical staff – all productions are written, directed and performed in their totality by Durham students. What a fantastic opportunity to create a piece of original theatre, and have it performed on a professional stage in front of an adoring crowd at various venues across the city.
The offerings I saw at this year’s festival certainly did not disappoint; all demonstrated a remarkable flair and imagination worthy of professional theatre productions. Idgie Beau’s A Hundred Minus One Day (20th February) in Hatfield’s ornate Birley Room was the perfect way to kick off proceedings – an understated and intimately beautiful play which tells the story of Jen (Steffi Walker), a girl revisited by Daphne (the ever brilliant Idgie Beau), the imaginary friend of her school days and the hilarious consequences that ensue from such an incompatible reunion. The dialogue was sharp and stylish, the setting an ideal complement to the play’s tone and the duo’s acting (a two-hander in all but name) exceptional – the immensely talented Beau’s colourful yet oddly tender performance was among the best I saw at this year’s festival. As funny as it proved to be, it was a play tinged with the pain of reminiscence and regret, but such moments of emotional clarity were afforded the gravity they deserved without slipping into overindulgence. A strong start.
I’m afraid the same could not be said of Soap and Water (21st February), penned by Hannah Brennan and first on the bill on Thursday night. A daringly honest record of the playwright’s struggles with OCD it was, and very effectively executed in terms of staging, the script laboured at times under the ponderous gravity of its own earnestness. Being similarly a two hander, in my mind it suffered under the memory of the previous night’s performance – while this was a marvellous depiction of the weary isolation and misunderstanding of mental illness, the couple’s respective performances were not sufficiently rounded to invite sympathy for their plight and any chemistry initially created between them eroded as the play went on. Any moments of comic relief seemed oddly off-kilter and out of place and awkward lines like “My problems can’t catch up with me if I run faster” coupled with incongruous quotations from Woolf and Plath piped at intervals through the intercom drove this performance to the brink of self-pity. It is an incredibly worthy cause to back – OCD information leaflets were placed under every seat and at the finale it was announced the play is being used to raise awareness for awareness by a major UK charity – but regrettably, it was not great drama. A commendable effort nonetheless.
It was succeeded by Lewis Meade and Matt Dann’s rip-roaring gangster comedy The Babysitters (21st February), a class above anything I saw at this year’s festival and an absolute delight to behold. With an aesthetic strongly reminiscent of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, staged at Assembly Rooms last term, it tells the story of two reluctant hitmen, Dave and Tommy (Meade and Michael Forde), forced to interrogate a suspected thief and the consequences of their blundering inability to torture or question him. The comic repartee was immaculate and had a packed-out house rolling in the aisles; the script was deceptively elegant and every last detail carefully executed to squeeze out every chuckle. The pair are then duct taped to chairs by slick newcomers Barry and George (Dann and Alex Morgan) whose banal elevated chatter played brilliantly against the gruesome nature of their task. This is student theatre at its best – professional, perfectly acted and utterly hilarious – and the undeniable masterpiece of the festival, the kind of production that makes the whole event such a worthy endeavour. “There isn’t a f***ing script, Tommy,” spits Dave at one point, “Just make it up as you go along.” The whole production was infused with this ethic, so slick it seemed to be made up on the spot – the irony being that a huge amount of hard work had been put into making it a reality. An utter joy, five stars without a doubt.
An excellent night was capped off with the talented Antonia Goddard’s unusual We All Fall Down (21st February), a thoughtful inspection of the morals of victimisation and the difficulties of judgement. Are victims better people that their killers? Who has a right to judge? What if one is put on trial for one’s sins? In Goddard’s production, humanity is on trial for its sins and we, the audience, are established as in the docks, waiting to hear the verdict and our punishment. Four witnesses for the prosecution, murder victims and subject to the evils of humanity, give their evidence in turn. The acting and staging of the play was solid if somewhat unremarkable, yet what really set the production apart was the daring experimentalism and creative ideas for which Goddard must take full credit – questions were raised and discussed sensibly and thoughtfully but with great panache to boot. The audience was presented questions as to the true limits of meta-theatrics without any dreaded self-indulgence, as could have easily been the case and has been in numerous student productions past. An impressively ambitious effort, and worthy of praise.
All in all, a wonderful collection of new drama for which all involved must be applauded. If anything, the festival seems to be improving year on year; the fact that more and more people who would never have considered getting involved in the theatre before are responding the call to arms is a great sign for the future of student theatre in Durham which, on this evidence, looks very bright. Bring on DDF ’14!