“These three shows demonstrate a huge scope of Durham’s wide theatrical talent”

With three plays that spanned a myriad of genres, eras, and subjects, the DDF Assembly Rooms programme promised to be incredibly varied. Millie Glenister’s ‘Tease’ transported us into the unforgiving, appearance-driven world of American show-business; ‘Puppets’ by Barney Watts explored the fractured relationship of two brothers whose lives took seemingly opposite paths; and Louise Coggrave amalgamated dialogue, spoken word, poetry, and music in her ‘The Whole of England Stopped when a Policeman Murdered a White Woman’.

Kicking off the night was Glenister’s ‘Tease’, with the entrance of Raphael Kris, playing the seedy sixty year old Joe, followed by Maddie Clark’s glamorous Kitty, Joe’s wife of twenty years his junior, a once shining starlet of Hollywood. The ensuing entrances of what Glenister terms the ‘ghosts from their pasts’ curates an atmosphere of tension, and stifling claustrophobia, yet with comedic moments provided wonderfully by Mimi Nation-Dixon, Hanna Wright, Alfie Cook, and Marcus Tapper. The setting of the Californian outback following a past of Hollywood fame required sustained American accents from each cast member, which was executed near perfectly by each cast member – not an easy feat with a running time of over an hour! Whilst I feel more exposition was needed in places to portray relationships between characters more acutely, Glenister’s writing on a whole was an extremely solid foundation onto which Emily Browning and Katie Procter incredibly directed upon; their use of staging, space and proxemics being a true highlight in my viewing. I especially liked the choice to use DSL with its ornate chair and vintage TV set as a place via which Joe’s seedy masculinity was able to unfold. Clark later entered this space, adopting a man-spread and similarly guzzling alcohol, yet condemning her husband’s actions, highlighting how the female characters of this play ‘ferociously bite back at the vicious sexual exploitation’, following Browning’s words. 

Kitty and Joe’s fractured, unloving relationship was portrayed by Clark and Kris fantastically, in scenes that highlighted Glenister’s fantastic writing. The relationship of Steven (Alexander Bittar) and Lori (Zara Ewen) was similarly built upon cynicism and aggravation, with the actors’ fantastic use of gesture and eye contact subtly aiding this. Furthermore, Emily’s unexpected turning up, played by Juliette Willis, catalysed the true action of the play, moving past business-based grievance and petty argument, and rather becoming a dark tale underscored by sexual assault. Willis’ portrayal of Emily’s youth was on the whole wonderful, encompassing Emily’s youthful naivety in her gesture. There were moments where I felt her facial expression was too over-exaggerated but her vocal intonation was perfect throughout. When Eleanor Sumner later entered, revealing herself to be Emily’s mother Janie, the relationship between the two was perfect; Sumner’s maternal apprehension, seen physically in her pacing towards Willis and pulling her lovingly into an embrace, was juxtaposed fantastically by Willis’ youthful lack of concern. The play’s costume design was wonderful, especially for the female characters: Kitty’s low cut dress demonstrated her desire to keep up the appearance of her stardom which juxtaposed wonderfully with Janie’s pastel floral dress, demonstrating her more conservative tendencies, and implicitly her desire to protect her daughter.

The cyclicality of the play exposed the ever-happening issues explored in Glenister’s writing: complicity, coercion and the contents of media consumed. Whilst I personally was not a fan of the ending (but this is, of course, personal taste), Glenister’s writing was witty, natural and well-constructed, dealing with a myriad of issues in a way that did not appear overtly prophetic or didactic, a testament to the strength of her writing. Browning and Procter’s direction of such fantastic writing was incredible, and the cast’s execution of this is also to be highly commended. 

Following a successful first production, the set transformed in front of our eyes into a bar with littered alcohol bottles, for ‘Puppets’. From the outset, Freddie Mitchell and Alex Davies’ stage presences were fantastic, with the first three or so minutes of the play being without dialogue, yet the actors’ fantastic physicality ensured momentum was not lost. The episodic nature of the play allowed insights into the developing relationships of the two brothers: whilst the brothers start as ‘strangers’, according to Davies’ Lonny, the beautifully directed ensuing scenes demonstrated growing endearment and care between them. Watts directed collaboratively with Honor Calvert, and their intricate choices allowed subtle insights into the two characters’ psyches fantastically. Davies and Mitchell followed this direction perfectly, and the scenes in which we saw the characters at their most vulnerable were the most successful of the show. However, their comedic abilities must also be commended, beautifully crafting light-hearted brotherly humour amongst the difficult themes Watts’ dialogue explores. I especially enjoyed the use of music, and how the humour curated in the ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ sequence was later completely reversed.

The set was perfect: intimate yet not quite homely. A fairly simple set was employed but small details were also carefully considered, such as the pictures that adorned the back wall. The directors explored the space perfectly, with every inch of the stage being covered: never, however without reason; each movement, gesture, and use of prop was intently and purposefully conveyed by Mitchell and Davies. Their bonding was demonstrated beautifully in a scene where Connie entered drunkenly after a night out. After turning the lights off, with the lurid neon bar sign being the only source of light, the two lay in silence momentarily before Connie uttered the heartbreaking ‘she is gonna remember who I am, right?’ referring to his young daughter, whose mother did not allow Connie to see often. The blue light cast over the stage was dim, and thus only allowed outlines of their bodies to be seen; that Connie was at his most vulnerable in the dark demonstrated his inability to face up to emotion or consequence in day to day life. Connie’s eventual admission of why he must stay with his daughter’s mother is shockingly gritty and raw. Watt’s script reverses expected gender roles, and explores perpetual violence intimately and grittily, through his ability to reflect natural speech patterns. Watts’ writing I feel was the strongest on offer, allowing a beautifully raw presentation of modern masculinity, upon which Calvert’s assistance in directing, and Davies’ and Mitchell’s execution of such direction created a play that was equally endearing, gritty, and honest, and one I would implore anyone to watch. 

The final offering of the evening took a sharp turn from the naturalistic styles of the previous two. Coggrave’s ‘The Whole of England Stopped when a Policeman Murdered a White Woman’ was unique, highly creative, and offered an amalgamation of forms like I have never seen before. The acting, especially of Rhyen Hunt and Aleksa Verusevic, playing Tamera and Nasir was astounding. Hunt’s role especially necessitated subtly considered, intricate acting choices, which she did brilliantly. Her bubbly charisma in the opening scenes gelled wonderfully with the hardened exterior of Verusevic’s Nasir, their flirty conversation beautifully setting the foundations of their relationship. 

Spoken word was introduced early into the performance, with Verusevic’s echoing of Hunt’s speech wonderfully demonstrating the connection of the two characters, and the similarities they encountered in life despite their seemingly different backgrounds: their lives became intricately intertwined over the course of the play, and the amalgamation of forms aided this incredibly uniquely. Verusevic on the whole was simply fantastic. His gesture and physicality was impeccable from the start and his stage presence was a marvel. His portrayal of Nasir’s relationship with his mother, played by Cana Tutuncu, demonstrated Nasir’s inherent softness, thwarted by disturbed masculinity as a result of his involvement in gang violence, especially the presence of Moyo, played well by Horatio Hollaway. Tutuncu’s soft tone in her religious pleading echoed the differences between mother and son vocally, but her unending love and care was incredibly apparent. Coggrave worked in collaboration with Doncaster based music producer Jos Cozi to create original music which underscored the majority of scenes. There were scenes in which this worked incredibly, underpinning the rhythms of Coggrave’s fantastically lyrical dialogue. I felt that the near constant inclusion of music lessened its impact slightly, but the music itself was fantastic, and truly represented the talents of the North as was one of Coggrave’s aims. Anna West and Anastasia Vlachopoulou’s set design aided the production hugely: the graffiti adorned wall was made up of two pieces on flies, reflecting the fractured relationships of the characters both with others, themselves, and the fractured community they were part of. 

Whilst the spoken word and music worked effectively on the whole, I felt the inclusion of rap was slightly incongruous. This is no reflection on Hunt and Verusevic’s performance of it, as they were emotion-driven and raw, but the raps themselves felt as though they belonged more to an episodic collection of art forms rather than part of a cohesive unit, with lyrics that felt overly didactic, with brief reference to a myriad of issues rather than an extended consideration of any. This being said however, Coggrave’s vision was unique and highly inventive: with tweaking, I think such scenes can be brought to their full, raw, evocative potential. The main strength of Coggrave’s script was in humanising those whose stories often do not get told, and those who often end up in the media only as statistics. What it lacked sometimes in subtlety and congruity, it made up for in evocative speech, creativity and inventiveness. The actors beautifully moulded this script to create developed characters whose back stories, motives and desires were clear, and I feel that with slight tweaking, this play will fulfil its incredibly high potential.

Finally, credits must be paid to the producers, production managers, stage managers, and tech operators of all three shows. Each show’s publicity was second-to-none, lighting and sound cues were excellently done, and the PMs ensured smooth running of each performance. 

These three shows demonstrate a huge scope of Durham’s wide theatrical talent, amalgamating genre, style and content over the course of only a few hours, in what is a special, unique and compelling DDF programme. 

By Sarah Kelly

The DDF Assembly Rooms programme is performing on the 4th February for a matinee and evening performance

Photo Credits: Durham Student Theatre