Megan Cooper enjoys a thought-provoking production about voluntourism, Tourists, at the Durham Drama Festival.

Out of the hectic atmosphere created by the vignettes, disordered conversations and projected buzz phrases, an intricately thought out and constructed piece of theatre emerges as the first play of DDF’s General Programme 2, held in the Assembly Rooms.

Written, directed, and sound-designed by Elliot Ancona, Tourists is an interesting and thought-provoking meditation on a decidedly Durham topic: voluntourism. Here, a light (torch light rather than searchlight) is shone onto the worthy anecdotal remnants of volunteering gap years. Apparent do-gooder Allie (Gayaneh Vlieghe) is our protagonist; our alignment with her is a facet of the play’s (mostly self-aware) embodiment of the hypocrisies of the enterprise. A tonally perfect scene near the opening exemplifies this, as Oscar (Freddie Parsons) reels off the project’s orientation speech to Allie, to the amusement of both. Content and form are continually at odds for a girl finding her place in the world, through volunteering in a part of it that is losing itself.

This tension between personal story and the horrifying immensity of war is handled incredibly well in a combination of understated, tender acting, and highly stylised tech and blocking. An inescapable and ambiguous dread permeates, always just beyond the fragile safety Allie seeks in connections to the people around her; a quiet moment between Allie and war refugee Dee (Jack Firoozan) is interrupted by a phone call warning her of impending police raids. Vague allusions to the ‘red zone’, the ‘border’, and the ‘apocalypse’ keep the audience at a distance from the danger, just as Allie’s position as ‘just a volunteer’ does. However, there’s always a sound, a change in the lighting, or a projected visual, to remind us of the encroachment of the outside, in, as the story advances with grim inevitability.

The scenes in Dee’s tent tend towards the twee, and often fall back on cliched dialogue and tried and tested relationship progression and stumbles. His home provides a unique shelter for Allie in more than one way. The constancy of Dee in the darkness throughout the play undercuts Allie’s romantic comedy experiences however, indicating the narrowness of what Allie is able to experience and understand. Indeed the scenes do provide laughs, and are rewarding on that level, especially with Firoozan’s endearing awkwardness, but there is a potential to see this as a dalliance with the self-congratulatory; Dee exists as a mere function for a privileged person’s awakening. But the accumulative atmosphere and structure of the play in its entirety creates a more nuanced and complex critique of those in similar positions to Allie, bringing us back from the brink of self-indulgency by taking us to another.

Vlieghe is a greatly likeable and natural actress, sweeping us along in her story from the get-go. She remains gripping to watch, and never allows Allie to be just one thing. The border scene is a particular standout and an ultimate example of using tech and acting to the benefit of both. With Ancona taking on such vital roles within the production, his vision is realised to a high standard, in a focused and driven play.

Tourists is part of General Programme 2 at the Durham Drama Festival, playing in the Assembly Rooms Theatre.