One of the highlights of our theatrical year, the Durham Drama Festival opened on Wednesday night with a mixed and mostly good bag.
The rather intensely – and almost slightly worryingly – titled Suicide Letter Love Note, penned by our own David Head, opened the night’s set. It was a meta-theatrical piece about a man called Jack looking back on his first love and was incredibly amusing, well-written and well-acted. Some might consider it tricky at best to write a play about a man contemplating suicide, yet the task was handled brilliantly. Comic moments were very natural, which is very impressive given the nature of some, including the final scene that dwelled on both hanging oneself and masturbation. On a less crude note, I personally liked the scene in which the protagonist commented on his habit of reading pretentious literature on public transport which, judging by the audience reaction, struck a chord amongst many. The words, “I do this to impress” indicated, though we may not like to admit it, something we’ve all been guilty of at some point in our desperately intellectual little lives. In addition, the message that it’s often difficult to tell someone you’re in love with exactly what you would like to tell them was artfully handled, especially due to the lead’s talent for communicating intimately with an entire theatre audience. Suicide is described in the play as a form of self-preservation, and so it seems that a play might act as one, too.
Swan Ache by Nick Arnold was excellently performed by its all-female cast. It opened dramatically and racily, with six young women running around frantically and getting dressed. The characters’ speech – I use the word “speech” here as it wasn’t exactly dialogue – flowed smoothly and the whole thing was both easy to enjoy and although initially perplexing, very engaging. More meta-theatre ensued when we were confronted with the girls onstage watching a performance of Swan Lake; the theatre became an audience watching another audience, recognising in them what our own facial expressions might be. The women, lovers of caffeine, cigarettes and the same man, looked sensational in red lipstick and LBDs and all delivered sterling performances. The characters, all relatively similar, were given communal added depth by the contrast between their apparent female independence and their reliance upon the anonymous man they admire, to whom they say: “We were inferior to you; we were relying on you.” As a female student watching a play about women stuck in dead-end jobs looking back on their days at university, it was all rather harrowing.
Just Deserts Sketch Comedy was, however, a slightly disappointing end to the evening. Perhaps I was just tired after a longer-than-usual night at the Assembly Rooms, or maybe it was because the two previous pieces had set the bar so high, but the story of a contemporary anarchic Britain at war just didn’t hit the spot. A promising premise, the cast and writers could have done so much more with such a vision; there were some genuinely good comic moments, such as interjections from the son-cum-poet and a computer keyboard’s newfound use as a drum kit, but much was awkward and poorly acted. Words were jumbled, the plot was nonsensical and reliance upon unimaginative national stereotypes was all too frequent; if it attempted satire, it lacked a solid foundation in politics. The audience, however, loved every moment. And I quite liked one of the actor’s sunglasses.
All in all, it seems that this year’s DDF is set to be a success, with something sure to take everyone’s fancy.