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‘Guards! Guards!’ is unguardedly unpretentious

Posted on 23rd February 2010. 7 Comments

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Jonny Muir reviews the stage adaptation of Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, The Assembly Rooms, 18th – 20th February 2010

Well, I have to admit, I’m kind of stuck. What can I possibly say about Ooook! Productions’ Guards! Guards!? I suppose for the sake of journalistic integrity (I have such precious little of it, after all) I should mention that it was poorly acted, sloppily paced and clumsily staged. I should probably also mention that a combination of inaudible performances, dodgy regional accents and inelegant writing made the plot virtually unintelligible to me. But damn it all, I kind of enjoyed it.

Durham theatre has a propensity to take itself far too seriously, and Guards! Guards! was nothing if not unpretentious. There was something charmingly amateurish about the whole production, and the lack of polish (and, in some instances, line-learning) made it endearingly shambolic. In a theatre scene that is dense with conceited seriousness, Guards! Guards!, with its thoroughly (some might say relentlessly) whimsical sensibility, could almost be seen as subversive.

 It had a man dressed as an orang-utan who communicated entirely through the medium of charades. It had an actor affect the character of a dwarf by kneeling on his shoes. It had not one, but two papier-mâché dragons, one strung along on a wire over the heads of the audience during a climactic action scene. I use the words “climactic” and “action” in their broadest possible senses. The production was so unashamedly scrappy that I started to feel a sort of perverse affection for it.

 The cast tackled Stephen Brigg’s witty, but more often bumblingly incoherent, adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s novel with an odd mixture of lazy characterisation and West Country accents. I am being unfair – there were a couple of Cockneys and one very fine Welsh accent. The four main guards (Karim Mariey, Ben Saunders, Evan Jones and Tom Eklid) brought to mind the Three Musketeers as imagined by the Chuckle Brothers. Murray Adcock’s Patrician and Alice Christian’s Lady Sybil Ramkin were not so much bad as out of place, seemingly imported from The Lord of the Rings and The Archers respectively. Christian had one of the best lines in the show – “You don’t know anything about mating, do you?” – which is even funnier when taken out of context. The meetings of the arcane secret society felt like an episode of The Office, only more awkward and less lucid. It was exactly as good as it sounds. You can interpret that however you want.

 The technical crew were probably the most talented people in the production. Any technical team that can affect the appearance of a dragon with only red lighting and a bizarre flapping sound effect deserves either congratulations or psychiatric evaluation, I’m not sure which. I really liked the set, which had a marvellously detailed painted backdrop for the outdoor scenes, and a turret for the guards to stand on. Sometimes it seemed like more work went into the sound, lighting, props, costumes and set than went into the performances. It was no surprise to learn from the programme that the technical crew was as big as the cast, and the cast was pretty big to start with.

 I sense I should feel a small pang of guilt for being so cruel about the shortcomings of the production, but then again, I cannot think of a cast and crew less likely to give a damn about what I have to say about their show in a review. I do not mean that in a malicious way, what I mean is that I suspect the cast and crew of Guards! Guards! put the production on because they genuinely just wanted to have a good time, and that critical approval was not really a concern. I certainly hope that is the case. It was not good in any reasonable or justifiable way, but there are bad shows that make you cringe with embarrassment, and there are bad shows that win you over with their unabashed scruffiness. I suppose Guards! Guards! was the latter kind, and if that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s probably because it is.

Photography: Tim Foster

7 Comments »

  • Sam said:

    I like the way you write.

    If that sounds pervy it’s probably because IT IS…

  • Tom said:

    I completely agree with the review. It was bad, but at the same time very enjoyable. It felt like a pantomime with fewer dwarfs.

  • Ben said:

    Glad you vaguely enjoyed our performance. I am however confused- you say there were West Country accents used by the actors. This is frankly untrue. Most of them were London based, RP, Lowland Scotland (I do apologise for this one, it was a spur of the moment thing as i was filling in for another actor), Alice’s lovely Welsh one and Tom’s natural Sheffield twang. Some of the cockney ones may have been a little Dick van Dyke in their application (something which never held him back) but no one used any accent from the West Country. Based on this sloppy piece of data collection i am forced to conclude that your review is factually incorrect in all aspects (other than the tech paragraph- damn right on that one) and that all points in it are null and void. I end this comment with an actorial flounce out of the preverbial room.

  • Anon said:

    A totally accurate review. In Durham’s world of unnecessarily pretentious thesps, who to be fair put on some damn good shows, this was a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t Hamlet by the RSC, and didn’t try to be. It will probably stand in sharp contrast to the dull waffle that will doubtless be on offer at the DDF this week. Guards! Guards! was 10 times as fun as these shows are likely to be, and thats what student theatre is all about.

  • Anon 2 said:

    I wonder how many plays at DDF will about people coming to terms with their past. Christ.

  • Alex said:

    You can’t win. People criticise productions for not being good enough (see Mr Muir’s article on the Freshers’ Play 2009) and then criticse them for being too good.
    What’s wrong with trying to make productions stand out? Guards! Guards! was great, don’t get me wrong – but just because ‘DST thesps’ try to make their productions as professional as possible doesn’t mean they should be criticised for being pretentious. Some of these guys want to do it professionally – is that a problem? Compare it with Team Durham Sports teams – they’re trying to play to as professional a standard as possible because they’re bloody passionate about it.

    And who KNOWS what DDF will bring, but let them have a go, at least. That’s basically what this article’s saying anyway. Think of DDF as being for the writers, not the actors.

  • Anon 6,000,000 said:

    Wow. People really have a hate for ‘DST thesps’ as these comments so generously title, which surprises me. However, please take this comment as something which may encourage this hatred. I thought that DDF was great- SO GET A LIFE YOU LOSERS.