“An avid display of different themes and genres, and a testimony to the ever-growing quality of student written plays…

This year’s DDF Assembly Rooms programme was an avid display of different themes and genres, and a testimony to the ever-growing quality of student written plays.

The programme kickstarted with ‘Dos’, a poignant yet fulfilling discourse between a romantic pair stuck indoors due to a storm and having to face their worst fears about their relationship. “Telling you what’s wrong might spoil something that’s good right now” – a dialogue from the play, is a perfect summary of the work. Horatio Holloway as Dex really gets into the character, switching from a relaxed, chill persona to a more serious and argumentative tone with ease. Holloway shines in monologues about internal struggles, reflecting on own insecurities during conversation with Joni (played effortlessly by Maariya Khalid) and moments of complete meltdown. The ‘nightmare’ sequence, highlighting emotions of feeling useless and insecurity surrounding sexuality was conveyed well. Khalid also enjoys her time to shine during arguments with Holloway about parental pressure, unconditional acceptance, opening up harboured feelings and consolation. A monologue about defending her significant other turning into a reflection of her own conflicts and various moments of temperament was played very fittingly. The lead pair’s chemistry is also electric which makes the conversations feel organic.

There was a lot of physicality in the play – moving around the space and use of strong body language – which was pulled off effectively by the lead pair. A lot has to be said about the sound and stage design which exemplifies the play. An untidy hotel room to symbolise the mess in their relationship, using silhouettes to signify the internal ‘voice’, use of messaging voice notes to fake happiness, hotel announcements and guided meditation for metaphor and exposition, lighting changes to depict the emotion of the room, superimposed arguments where everyone’s speaking but no one is listening – all of this was fantastic and the backstage department (Roxy Toyne and team) deserves all the credit for transforming a minimalistic storyline into a visual treat. My only personal gripes would be the length, and juggling of many mini-stories and themes in the runtime. It felt to me that central themes could get lost in the mix and this would have benefitted from a crisper edit as some dialogues felt repetitive. That said, the play had a fitting ending in line with the overall themes being conveyed by writer Maria Galimberti, directors Felicity Rickard and Ben Johanson, and Assistant Director Paloma Hoyos.

‘Love and Freindship’ (deliberately misspelt) was next in line as a ‘regency romp’ of young Laura (wonderfully portrayed by Sylvie Norman-Taylor), a stark contrast in genre from the previous drama. A wacky, over-dramatised tale following a ‘comedy of errors’ style, Olivia Clouting narrates the story as an older, wiser Laura and her escapades of love and, evidently, friendship! The juxtaposing narrative style was seamless and amazing, adding a fresh flavour to the whole play. Subtle dialogues (“I never liked the poor!”) were effective in setting the scene and communicating the characters of the lead actors and physical comedy was utilised amply. Scenes such as a stranger speaking while everybody eavesdrops in a silly manner, the many transportation sequences using umbrellas (which never get old and generated peals of laughter), funny montages, a personified ‘tree’, and many melodramatic fainting scenes were exactly the kind of whimsical humour in line with the genre.

The minimalist set pieces and small cast playing multiple roles were a good example of the premise ‘less is more’, and the improvisation around a door not opening particularly stood out. Interpersonal relationship of the protagonist with her lover Edward (Matthew McConkey), and friendships with Sophia (Indie Spafford) and Augustus (Oli Butler) were established through fantastic dialogue, while all the supporting actors and ensemble cast (Molly Bell, Jude Battersby, Henry Skinner, and Scarlett Clarke) really elevated the whole play to the next level. Every character being introduced was played to perfection and shared the same overall liveliness of the play. A few gags might have gone a tad too long, but this didn’t take away from the whole experience of enchanting the audience with a fairy-tale journey. The final wrap up of the quirky life lessons learned by the protagonist was tongue-in-cheek and a neat conclusion to the enjoyable storyline written by Zara Stokes-Neustadt and directed by Emily Browning.

The night ended with ‘Technically: A Musical’ serving both as ode to the hard-working backstage teams behind theatre and telling the tale of the transition of a talented artist from behind-the-scenes to the limelight. The musical approach was appropriate for this play – a charming way of communicating monotonous backstage tasks that left the audience grooving to the beat. Rachel Wilkinson played the director role with ease, juggling effortlessly between her wild epiphanies and emotional distress. Alice Lim, Carrie Cheung, Jolie Rooks, Grace Heron and Niamh Williams played their respective roles as different backstage artists perfectly, getting into the skin of every role very naturally and working together as a strong unit. There was plenty of meta-commentary on working in theatre (“Why did you give the director a blackout? They don’t need another ego boost”), and the use of a live piano and a ‘technician-style’ set design was an ingenious idea that fit appropriately.

Every performer got a chance to shine in the many musical numbers (which were incredible) and the song ‘I’ll Shine, Not Technically, But Me’ was a stand-out. There’s plenty of heart and soul in the performances, and it clearly shows. The finale song was basically all the actors having a blast on stage, playing around with different costumes, and engaging with the audience. It was energetic, soul-warming and a wonderful conclusion to a night of drama. Kudos to the writers / directors (Shannon Hill, Jacob Marshall, Charlotte Walton) and backstage teams (Aaron Lo and team) for putting up a lovely show.

DDF’s Assembly Rooms Program was an exciting showcase of creativity and talent – experimenting with new ideas and presenting a carousel of proscenium that audiences will adore and enjoy!

By Akash Sivakumar

DDF’s Assembly Rooms Program will continue to show at 19:00 on Friday the 9th and Saturday the 10th of February in the Sir Thomas Allen Assembly Rooms Theatre

Photo Credits: Durham Drama Festival