Typical Student Drama
The term ‘student drama’ brings up a lot of connotations; often dramatically ambitious, and sometimes innovative, yet all too often it is far too earnest and let’s face it, downright pretentious. There is drama going on Durham that manages to break free of some of the constraints of student theatre and really starts to entertain and move, see, for example The Homecoming and Amadeus. However, on Thursday my suspicions of student theatre were once again confirmed, particularly those concerning writing.
Sorry, Wrong Number
The first play, a romantic comedy called Sorry, Wrong Number was written and directed by Durham’s very own famous (or should that be infamous?) Pop Idol contender, Chris Neville-Smith. Sadly tonight there were few laughs and little chemistry was evoked by the two leads; Simon Fairgrieve playing Justin and Kate Murphy playing Sarah. The opening moments saw Justin leaving Sarah a message asking her out on a date, except the message wasn’t for her, rather for a girl called Emily who had obviously given him a wrong number. For reasons best know to herself, Sarah calls back pretending to be Emily and agrees to the date. What follows is an awkward and very static date scene where Sarah constantly digs herself into holes because, while Emily might have been passionate about horse-racing and classic novels, Sarah has no idea about either.
Neville-Smith, more than either of the other two dramatists, had attempted to actually write a play with a developed plot and characters, yet I was left frustrated by the muddled script and poor acting. The words and actions just didn’t add up. Justin declares that when he came into the bar, he spent twenty minutes searching for Sarah/Emily. Well he clearly didn’t – he barely seemed to look at all! Later on Justin suddenly announces from nowhere that he has to go and then is very vague about where and why. The impression the audience received was that he wanted to leave as fast as possible, and yet the next minute he’s declaring his undying love for her. Sorry, what?! The situation and characters that Neville-Smith had created, definitely had potential for a lot of humour and also some pathos, but unfortunately these emotions were never evoked.
The next piece by Narayani Menon, The Taken the Taker The Right and The Left, was definitive ‘student drama.’ I don’t doubt that Menon is a promising writer but I did feel that there was too much linguistic cleverness and not enough content. Having said that I didn’t dislike this production, I just didn’t feel it reached its full potential. It was a big issue that could never really be fully covered in the twenty or so minutes of the play.
The play took its inspiration from the recent kidnapping and murder of Kenneth Bigley. It was concerned with opposites: that of The Taken against The Taker and the Left against the Right. The Taken (Jake West) is a Kenneth Bigley-type character who is being held captive by a Russian woman, The Taker (Anna Biktimirova). The other duo is the Left (Hannah Brown) who represents the woman left behind and the Right (Philip Sidney); the politician trying to deal with the political turmoil that the situation has aroused. He must mediate between the personal demands (those of the left) and the more universal demands concerning whether we should ever negotiate with terrorists.
The acting was all up to a reasonable standard and I particularly liked the two male leads. Hannah Brown unfortunately became a bit too hysterical; there was nowhere for her character to go because she reached such a frenzy so early on. Anna Biktimirova had a very effective Russian accent, but judging from her name I suspect she might have had a bit of a head start on this! Anna and Jake were a nice foil to the hysteria of the other pair.
The two pairs never interact, but Menon created some highly effective moments of dramatic tension whenever they spoke in unison with each other, which helped to bring home the parallels of each situation. I really liked the staging of it. The four actors were sat in a long line across the front of the stage and each one of them was up-lit. A dark mood was immediately established and an intense focus was placed on what the actors were about to say. It could easily have been as static as the aforementioned play, but Menon managed to avoid this, by moving the actors whenever the opportunity presented itself
The last play of the night was the Beckettian offering, Don’t Provoke the Monkey, although thankfully it was a little more light-hearted than Beckett. Wavell Blades emerging from his dustbin/ tinfoil-covered alien egg was definitely the most startling entrance of the night and probably received the biggest laugh. Don’t Provoke the Monkey concerned Gareth Owen as a painter, Adam, and Blades as Levi, a philosopher of sorts. Blades was the more effective of the two, with his resonant voice and stage presence. The end provided us with the strongest moment of the play as Adam collapses in a kind of fit and Levi then appeals to audience to make of it what we will and disappears inside his shell. Although the staging was interesting and some of the dialogue quite witty, my major criticism of this piece would be that there was no plot and it was hard for the audience to understand the point that the playwright was trying to make, if any.
Some of the offerings on show did have some potential to be developed, but none of the three plays could be described as consummate dramatic creations. Maybe people will accuse me of having too high standards for what is, after all, only amateur drama prepared under strong time constraints. But the wealth of talent in Durham is bigger and better than this and I really look forward to next year and hope that it will have more to offer the audience.
photography (not necessarily of the plays reviewed above) barney