“As 7:30 drew ever closer, a buzz of anticipation began to build in the Collingwood bar as friends and thespians alike acquired their drinks, mingled, and excitedly waited for the first show to begin…”

With Sunday’s ‘Opening Night’ having kicked off the timetable for DDF 2023, the Mark Hillary programme recommenced the week’s activities with three student-written performances. The evening promised to be an intriguing one, offering a great variety of genre and style across the writing. As 7:30 drew ever closer, a buzz of anticipation began to build in the Collingwood bar as friends and thespians alike acquired their drinks, mingled, and excitedly waited for the first show to begin. 

At just slightly past half seven, Will Drake and Vivienne Shaw’s ‘Dina! The Musical’ began with Dina (Hannah James) proclaiming that “In the beginning there was nothing, and then there was DINA!” With that being said, and the audience suitably prepared for the silliness that would ensue, Hannah James strutted onto the stage. The story followed the narcissistic and endearingly incompetent Dina as she strove to become a star of the musical theatre world. After being sent into a spiral by her expulsion from performing arts school, the audience watched as Dina relentlessly battled to become a star and regain her “rightful” place in the spotlight. The performance was a roaring success and, since it was an “almost one-woman musical”, James must naturally receive special credit for this. Hilariously, the thing that was most impressive about her performance was just how bad it was. For an exceptionally talented vocalist, she managed to sing off-key for much of the show, completely ignoring Drake’s excellent musical accompaniment. This out-of-tune singing may have become repetitious if it weren’t for James’ witty portrayal, with her characteristically intense facial expressions keeping the audience in stitches throughout. However, Dina did not always have to sing atonally thanks to the carefully interwoven sections of “autotune” and inspiring dream sequences that thankfully allowed James to showcase her true ability. This was not, however, a one-woman show, but featured cameo-like moments from Will Drake as Dina’s accompanist and Ben Lycett as a sleezy Hollywood record producer, with Lycett causing particular uproar. Turning to the technical elements of the production, Vivienne Shaw and Stuart Wood should be commended for their well-executed use of projections throughout the musical. These were used to both contextualise moments onstage and also present Dina’s online platform to the audience, most notably during Dina’s YouTube performance of one of her original songs (reminiscent of a certain viral Whitney Houston cover). Overall, this was a brilliant show for which Shaw and Drake should receive great praise, especially with regards to the musical composition. If I have any criticism it would be that I would have liked to hear James sing properly more frequently, as the perpetual flatness did occasionally become mildly repetitive.

Continuing in the comedic vein, the second show of the evening was Olly Stanton and Ben Lycett’s ‘You Dunnit!’ This fast-paced spoof of a who-dunnit mystery was a slick, well-written, fantastically acted, and riotous production that remained impressive throughout. Although the writers commented in the programme that improvisations were key to the performance and that “if you don’t find anything funny they probably made it up”, I can happily report that the script and actors kept the audience in perpetual hysterics. The play began with an introduction by its writers, warning of the audience interaction to come (everyone had to think of an activity and murder weapon) but also informing the audience of the show’s sponsor, Amazon – a joke that continued during the play with not-so-subtle product placement. As the story unravelled we were introduced to a growing plethora of characters: first of all there was the lone-wolf Maverick (Alex Edwards) and his loveable sidekick, Rookie (Jacob Vellucci). I found this double act to be particularly successful with Vellucci’s snide dorkishness nicely complimenting Edwards’ brusque eccentricity. In police HQ we also met the Police Chief (Bethan Avery) and were able to enjoy some improvisation around the aforementioned audience suggestions, something that the cast dealt with admirably. The play then followed Edwards and Velucci as they investigated the “gruesome string of grisly murders” that were the central element of the plot, leading us first from art classes and then to the Children’s Hospital. These new locations gave rise to more silliness (water guns were involved!) and new absurd characters: Joe Rossiter as a questionably French art teacher and Jack Simmonds as a somewhat immature doctor. With all this established, the time came to meet “The Boss” played by a suitably evil and surprisingly bald Rachel Wilkinson. Alongside Wilkson were her unexpectedly emotionally in touch “Goons”, also played by Rossiter and Simmonds. To reveal much more would ruin the point of a who-dunnit, but the ending certainly did not disappoint! With a cast that was as generally fantastic as this one, it feels unfair to single out individual performances but there were some standouts. First, Edwards’ Maverick was unquestionably brilliant – his comedic timing, larger-than-life characterisation and knee slides made him a definite audience favourite. However, brilliant too was Joe Rossiter. In his multiroled capacity, Rossiter extracted the comedy from a whole slew of characters, never missing a beat, or a laugh. Alongside these highlights there is one other certain selling point for the show, hearing Olly Stanton’s angelic vocals in the training-sequence-meets-dance-number that appears in the latter half of the show (Dina wasn’t the only musical on show tonight!) In terms of criticism there is very little I can offer as this really was a polished and hilarious performance. Apart from the infrequent corpsing, the glaringly obvious point is that the show ran for around an hour and twenty-five minutes, a solid half hour over the expected run time. However, I was so engrossed and enjoying it so much that I didn’t notice until the end, so who am I to complain!

And so, to finish off the Mark Hillary programme was Yolan Noszkay’s ‘Chance’, directed by Noszkay and Niamh Kelliher. More abrupt a tonal change would be harder to come by given the previous performances, with Chance tackling issues of northern poverty, suicide and alcoholism. However, the cast manged this transition masterfully, creating sympathetic, understanding and naturalistic characters through which the narrative could be told. The play began with Aaron (Ben Whittle), a seventeen-year-old schoolboy sitting alone on a hillside overlooking his hometown. Joined by a childhood best friend, Eva (Flo Booth), the two chatted and joked around, during which the audience learnt that Aaron had been excluded from school again and would be sent back to the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). The chemistry between Booth and Whittle was excellent here, immediately creating an intimate and comfortable atmosphere, through which the wider themes of the play could be explored. From here the play travelled through the different environments and characters that shaped Aaron’s world: his tense homelife and drunkard father (Archie Nolan); his hyperactive social worker (Fiona Steer); and then the PRU, complete with raucous classmates (Tom Corcoran and Ellie Mather) and an exasperated teacher (Beth Presswood). As the plot continued, the true tragedy of Aaron’s world became clear, this young man felt confined within an existence that he hated. Tortured by the relentless cycle of mental illness, alcoholism and stints in the PRU, he had no hope for his own life, poignantly remarking that it was “stupid” to even hope that things might stay alright, because that’s just “not how it works”. The script was beautifully constructed, creating sympathetic characters that you couldn’t help but pity under such harsh circumstances. However, I thought that a few of the scenes were particularly well written/performed. The second hilltop conversation between Eva and Aaron explored a breadth of challenging topics: from gentrification and the dichotomy of society to the frustrations of their limiting circumstances. This thought-provoking discourse was exquisitely performed creating genuine and vulnerable characters that felt believable and understandable. Continuing on from this conversation, I found Aaron’s final monologue and the closing scene notably moving. Here Whittle must receive special commendations for his interpretation of the closing monologue and subsequent panic attack. His use of breath, pauses and whole physicality amounted to a performance so evocative that it quite literally left many of the audience crying. While mentioning specific performers, I think that Fiona Steer also deserves praise for her portrayal of Mandy. In an energised and chaotic performance she demonstrated the unrealistic and out-of-touch nature of institutionalised assistance for these struggling families, at one time recommending that Aaron’s alcoholic father should make a lasagne instead of drinking. Steer was hilarious, bringing comedy to an otherwise largely serious production, while still conveying important messages. Generally, the performance incorporated fairly little tech, but I did think that the occasional use of juxtaposing upbeat music added greatly to the effect of the piece as a whole. The only area of improvement I might have liked to see in this production was further development of the father in the script, who felt a bit one-dimensional. This is not to detract from Nolan’s great melancholic portrayal, but I feel that nuancing his role into an even more sympathetic character could have benefitted the production. This is only a slight criticism however of a play that was extremely effective and emotive. A play that touched on many challenging topics with great success, ‘Chance’ was a sombre but powerful closing to a fantastic night of theatre at the Mark Hillary centre.

My congratulations to all those involved in the productions (particularly the writers!) and I wish all the actors the best of luck for the remainder of their performances. I would thoroughly recommend watching if you can, there are more performances on Friday the 3rd and Saturday the 4th, and hope that anyone going to see this excellent programme enjoys and appreciates it just as much as I did.

By Jo Price

The DDF: Mark Hillery Programme is performing on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th February

Photo Credits: Durham Student Theatre