Amid the stress of summative season shines Durham’s theatrical jewel: Durham Drama Festival 2016. A plethora of student written theatre graces us with its presence to relieve the mid-term anxieties and indulge us in a world of exquisite theatrical talent. This year’s Site Specific Night satisfied all cravings for refreshing and original dramatic entertainment.
The night began with Auditions, a piece of meta-theatre that was the brainchild of Hamish Clayton. The heavily ironic play followed a Director (Tyler Rainford) attempting to write, cast and produce a production but who is severely hindered by the blatant lack of talent present in the auditions. Thankfully, however, the directors themselves did not suffer from such troubles when casting their production; each cast member conveyed faultless characterisation of their roles which resulted in a delightful display of diverse and engaging characters throughout. This dedication to characterisation was epitomised by Qasim Salam, whose portrayal of a socially inept auditionee was both impressive and comedic for his physical and vocal contrasts when multi-rolling in character.
Other notable performances were given by Erin Welch, whose exaggeratedly wooden character and monotonous cries of “Dad! Dad!” provided great amusement for the audience. Also worthy of mention was Anna Galbraith as the chatty and loveable Producer who remained humble and sarcastic, foiling Rainford’s inflated exasperation perfectly.
Praise must go to director John Halstead for creating such a dynamic production. I was astounded by the scrupulous construction of the play; subtle touches such as directing the actors to wait outside ER149 as the audience entered the room was a scene far too familiar for fellow Durham thespians, truly conveying the comical self-awareness of the piece. This naturalistic setting contradicted greatly with the meta-theatrical style, yet this was only more humorous to the audience; the absurdist inclusion of water pistols and bananas was incongruous to the setting but demonstrated the utter madness of the production.
Clayton’s writing was laden with comedic inserts and he must be applauded for the highly effective sketch style auditions of the play’s opening. Auditions was a light-hearted and comical opening to the night and although the pace lacked somewhat in areas, it was highly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable.
Contrasting significantly in tone was Mr. Sparks and His Nighttime Larks: A Love Story; a production delivered by graduate Hugh Train. Set in the intimacy of St. John’s Wallis Room, the audience were invited into the bedroom of a young couple as they vowed to say “I love you” for the first time. Train examines the sincerity of relationships as each “I love you” is judged by the ominous Mr. Sparks with relentless consequences for untrue declarations of love.
The express familiarity of the play was chilling and this must be accredited to Eleanor George and Adam Murphy whose onstage relationship was portrayed with such naturalism that their emotional connection was tangibly present in each audience member. The subtleties of George’s smiles and confused frowns as Murphy would tell a story beautifully depicted their youthful affections that made their relationship movingly poignant. Directors Anna Jeary and Joe Kelen succeeded in ensuring that their movements and performances were understated to maintain this realism which subsequently heightened the tension of their potentially disastrous declarations of “I love you” as the audience anticipated their demise.
Yet as the audience were lulled into the comfort of teenage love, Theo Harrison’s appearance as the eponymous Mr. Sparks disrupted the idyllic state of happiness that George and Murphy had created. This interruption, however, was a triumph for the play. Harrison’s performance began with disturbing triviality but developed to unveil a host of emotions that warrant the utmost praise. The energy and authoritative confidence with which he delivered his performance was truly engaging: a true delight to watch.
The lyrical eloquence of Train’s writing must not be ignored; profound questions of love were moving. The only criticism would be the inclusion of high language in the colloquial discourse between the Man and Woman; discussions of “transcendence” and “nirvana” between a couple that read Cosmo and retrieved leaves instead of petals seemed slightly unlikely, but this was a mere technicality, and the performance remained faultless.
The partnership of Isabelle Culkin and Pitch Productions proved to be exquisite in producing the masterpiece of Your Grace. Set in the early 20th century, Culkin investigates the dynamics of unbalanced relationships and their consequences. The faultless cast and production team created a true spectacle of seamless theatre.
The complexity of Culkin’s plot was conveyed with ease by the ensemble cast; it was stunning to see such naturalism in a play that could be faltered by melodrama. The strong rapport of the actors was a significant contributor to the success of the production; the antithesis of the animated, sarcastic Loretta (Shona Graham) and reserved Imogen (Emilie Aspeling) was refreshing and propelled the plot forward for their differences. Aspeling’s subtle distress in her opening was engaging; the clarity of her pained facial expressions compensated for the distinct lack of lines which succeeded in creating an enigmatic and mysterious protagonist which contrasted greatly with Graham’s vivacious and confident portrayal of Loretta.
The latter stages of the play, however, were a true testament to the actors’ skill. Owen Sparkes, in his portrayal of the abusive Eric, was outstanding. The palpability of his restrained anger was threatening to the audience, who were sat only metres from the onstage action, evoking deep sympathy for his victim, Aspeling. Sparkes’ performance was complimented greatly by Sandy Thin, who played his long term friend, Joseph; Thin’s reservation and soothing voice created a truly likeable character that augmented the horror of Sparkes’ actions. Thin’s quiet and tender performance was the foundation to the success of this onstage relationship.
This was a production hindered only by some awkward scene changes; Culkin and her team should be praised for their ability to create such a dynamic and wide ranging production. This was a thoroughly engaging and moving play.