“This is an evening of creative flair that keeps audiences on their toes…

This year’s Mark Hillary DDF programme presents a varied selection of sensational new student writing. From existential conversations with local Durham residents, to beautifully off-key car sing-alongs, and the odd ABBA track here or there, this is an evening of creative flair that keeps audiences on their toes.

The night opens with verbatim play, ‘Sonder’, written and directed by Anna West and Elena Jennings-Mares. ‘Sonder’ is a refreshing collage of human interaction, thoughtfully crafted in a non-traditional style. Like a well-oiled machine, the ensemble and set move smoothly through extracts of interviews which West and Jennings-Mares have carried out and cleverly sewn together. Although the sound design airs on the side of cheesy at moments, this element of technical design can be overlooked by the creatively compelling use of the bus shelter as a projector. Whilst the piece sometimes falls short at balancing dialogue, which is meaningful with some more superficial notions, the messaging around the importance of connection and finding your feet remains resolute through mindful and engaging acting and direction. Layering of dialogue and effective links between sections for comic effect bring the audience on side, in moments of tear-jerking vulnerability, shifting into audible laughter.

Alex Edwards portrayal of a university porter is particularly effective in steadying a comedic yet moving personality, shining also in his multi-rolling. Furthermore, Edwards and Moritz Alfridi’s acting standout beautifully in the section centred around the sea. Maria Enzo’s frantic yet compassionate portrayal of a Greek university employee brings home the more serious themes of the piece, and especially radiates stage presence in her “people want to eat my country” portion, lit tenderly by spotlight. The ensemble’s movement work is also very carefully executed, solidifying ‘Sonder’ as an interesting gem which kicks off the night.  

 ‘Step by Step’, by Harry Threapleton and directed by Alexa Thanni and Tom Burman, fills the space for the next hour with elegantly funny and charming student theatre. Threapleton’s wit brims through to the acting, and ties together emotive themes around growing up with separated families. ‘Step by Step’ doesn’t try to re-write any rules, but what it does, it does with deep care and praiseworthy playfulness. It is evident from moment to moment that the cast are having great fun, which all-the-more enriches the more delicate moments of the play. Although ‘Step by Step’ feels at times an idealistic portrayal of dealing with the trials and tribulations of having divorced parents, I think the decision to not over-dramatise is a refreshing one, and one which makes moments where Arthur (played by Edward Clark) and his family’s emotions run high, feel more down-to-earth. 

Whilst the set might not always play ball, actors are sure to bat away any mishaps with wry humour which puts the audience quickly at ease. There is no doubt that by night two the actors will have the (very well earned) giggles all laughed out. Despite some minor technical issues, the set and split stage vision for the show must be highly commended – the inventive use of props drives the plot forward and enhance the inherent awkward comedy of the situations split-parent families encounter. My sincerest compliments to whoever decided to give a smoke pipe to Laurie Davidson (playing Arthur’s sport-invested stepdad) for a third-act throwaway joke. Another highlight of the hour is the sharp acting dynamic between Nell Hickson (Arthur’s mum), Davidson, and Clark in their more comedic scenes where the group get to know each other through various hobbies. Their shocking singing along to Don McLean will never not be brilliant.

Lastly, we are brought into the distorted world of Eric, an insecure YouTube commentator, in Marc Twinn’s ‘Influenced’. Think Ben Shapiro meets British sarcasm meets uncomfortable Durham boy temperament. Ollie Cochran triumphs in the feat of the one man play, giving a convincing performance of toxic masculinity and social insecurity personified. Through precise and fast-paced direction, we watch as Cochran decodes Eric’s situation in engaging and unravelling dialogue and gesture, having gone from internet obscurity to problematic viral success, whilst grappling with his relationship to truth and trust.

The use of voice over in the piece is something that could be further explored, perhaps replacing the multi-rolling of the ‘Alex’ character who winds up with an inconsistent accent and characterisation. How the chaos and undoing of Eric’s character are realised through set and story resolution is an element which the play could further push the tension and boundaries of.  Where the edges of ‘Influenced’ blur, and twists are revealed, it would be exciting to see more havoc imbued on stage. On the flip side, the understated lighting cues and costuming work well with the storytelling style of the piece and tie together Eric’s narratives of his experiences growing up and growing his influence.

‘Influenced’ presents an urgent call to examine serious issues surrounding social-political commentator sphere online. Admittedly, I did not feel entirely like the target audience for this story but felt compelled by much of Twinn’s vision for exploring themes like manipulation of power and fragility of masculinity. The strength of Twinn’s writing really shines through in the moments of unexpected comedy, as well as the self-actualisation and reflection which Eric battles through.

Overall, this year’s Mark Hillary programme is a night of inventive, poignant, and experimental writing and theatre-crafting. If you are looking for plays which strive to explore what’s lying just off the beating track, or simply searching for an engaging night of theatrical talent, DDF at Mark Hillary certainly won’t disappoint.

By Molly Knox

DDF’s Mark Hillery Program will run again on Friday the 9th and Saturday the 10th of February at 19:00 in Collingwood’s Mark Hillery Arts Centre

Photo Credits: Durham Drama Festival