I didn’t know what to expect from Rocket Theatre Company’s Showcase, but whatever I expected I was sadly disappointed. I must respect what The Showcase was trying to do; bringing colleges together in friendly competition with originally written sketches, all while raising money for charity. I also liked the interactive element which allowed the audience to vote on their phones for the best sketch. Unfortunately, this is where my praise ends. Showcasing work from Stephenson, John Snow, Trevelyan, St. Aidans and Buttered Toast, the performances were tentatively united under the theme of ‘Dreams’. Unfortunately for this reviewer, the experience ended up being more of a nightmare, leaving me relieved that at least my ticket had been free (though annoyed that no one will compensate me for my uber to Josephine Butler).
Everything about the show felt unprofessional, leaving me with the impression of a school show, and a bad one at that. The venue of Howland’s gym in Josephine Butler felt like a school hall, not helped by the fact that the seats were less than half full. The tech was practically non-existent, with the stage being poorly lit, and the only noticeable technical cues were one use of red light and awkward blackouts within scene changes and between each sketch. The host Fraser Logue was clearly trying, for which I commend him, but unfortunately most of his jokes fell miserably flat, with his self-deprecating jokes about Stephenson’s irrelevance receiving the biggest laugh. The show was presided over by two judges who were asked for their opinion after every performance; this felt contrived and condescending, with only tenaciously positive comments being made, again undermining any sense of these sketches’ professionalism. The entire experience took itself far to seriously for me, not having the joyous sense of a cabaret performance and yet nowhere near the level of professionalism and talent I have come to expect of Durham Student shows.
Moving onto the sketches themselves, the only word that really summarises them is bizarre. Entirely unrelated topics from British immigration to curling were portrayed in a way that from acting to writing can only be described as amateur. The sketches that hit the best for me were those which didn’t take themselves too seriously, at least allowing the audience to laugh along. Buttered Toasts’ sketch ‘Curling’ in honour of Burns Night was quite funny, with the actors playing off one another in a way that felt natural and comfortable on stage. Some of the jokes may have hit better had I known anything about curling, but I guess that’s on me. Similarly, St. Aidan’s sketch ‘Vaudeville’ about a mime detective hilariously portrayed by Richard Sharpe and his well-meaning but dim-witted sidekick getting caught up in a bank robbery was amusing, if a little strange. There didn’t seem to be an ending, and I didn’t see how it linked to the theme of dreams.
The sketch which won the night was John Snow’s comedic sketch ‘The Importance of Queuing’ about three Europeans (all acted by the most quintessentially British actors) taking a British citizenship test, raising the topical question of what it means to be British. The acting was believable, and some moments which satirised tropes of traditional Britishness like cuing and tea drinking were genuinely funny. However, there was a painful lack of subtly, meaning the funny moments were milked until they were no longer funny, and the message that being British is a state of mind undefined by a certificate was literally hammered into the audience’s head to the extent I felt like I was sitting in a classroom.
Stephenson college’s sketch ‘As the Crow Flies’ was strangely serious, meaning it really didn’t fit the tone of the evening. With awkward writing, an unclear relationship between the characters and unconvincing acting, I was glad when this uncomfortable sketch ended. However, the performance that really took the cake for me was Trev’s college’s frankly disturbing sketch ‘The Thing about Midsummer Night’. I didn’t know which I was more horrified by; the wooden acting, the lack of a story (I think it was about drugs?), or the appalling American accent used by Rian Mullan, seemingly without any reason. I felt like I was on a bad drug trip myself, and I am unlikely to get the image of a girl in a horse head pelting a man with sugar cubes out of my head for some time.
Overall, it is clear I did not enjoy the experience of ‘The Showcase’. I do however think it could be a good idea if better organised and executed. For an annual inter-college showcase to continue, some serious changes must be made; otherwise this night will be written off as an awkward experience I hope never to repeat.