“accomplished representatives of what technically detailed and emotionally authentic performances our students can offer”

I can’t help but wonder what the DST scene would be like if every production possessed the professionalism of the Finalists’ Showcase. Whether the end of a Durham career or the start of a West End one, I have nothing but admiration for their cast and prod team. 

With clear transitions between each monologue, a vibrant selection of material which offered both tragedy and comedy, and the theatrically-apt use of the Assembly Room’s red velvet curtain, director Saniya Saraf must be applauded for her smooth direction. Not a single technical fault was noted, not a cue even slightly missed. I was expecting an evening of excellent acting, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was an evening of excellent entertainment as well. Admittedly, the audience was packed by personal supporters, but laughter and cheers of that gusto cannot be faked. It was interesting to see that certain actors performed to their typecast, while others showcased their range. Regardless, each actor was truly at the height of their game.

Daisy Hargreaves possesses the invaluable ability to give any audience confidence in her performance. I have never seen an actor with each facial expression, each posture, each gesture so purposeful. In ‘The Memory of Water’ she was able to tug at heartstrings and invoke belly laughs alike. Her comedic timing is unmatched. 

Equally, ‘Four Play’ heralded the best of Ben Willows. While his posture has the potential to close him off at times, his portrayal of awkward stumbling in this monologue had an honesty which reached right to the back of the stalls. Likewise, when his character spoke to his boyfriend, we saw how an actor can turn a challenge into an opportunity. Instead of being limited by his lack of an acting partner, as one might expect in this scene, Ben’s tender looks were wonderfully exposed by their absence, leaving the audience with a clear view of the love that welled in his eyes as his character addressed his lover. It takes great skill to convey so much depth with only a glance.

While Sophie Alibert impressed with the sole song of the night, ‘Quiet’ it was diminished by her monologue, ‘Girl Interrupted’. This was unlike anything I had seen Alibert perform before, with the most wonderful of outcomes. The tension she held in her body, slight twitches of the face and eerily unmoving smiles, were the perfect portrayal of festering insanity. The control she demonstrated through this monologue was downright remarkable. 

Her pairing with Adela Hernandez-Derbyshire in ‘The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World’, also allowed the latter to truly shine. While her two earlier monologues were impressive, I far preferred the nuance of this duologue. The comedy was played with purposeful exaggeration, Hernandez-Derbyshire impressively portrayed a character playing melodrama while remaining true to the figure underneath. This layering of characters was one of the night’s highlights. 

Similarly, Tom Cain’s performances seemed to increase in confidence as the night progressed. I struggled to hear his ‘Ferryman’ monologue, both due to his volume and due to his accent, which, while excellent, needed better diction. That said, I would venture that he was the most versatile actor of the evening. His ‘Pillowman’ performance was both comedic and endearing, the tension in his hands and unique protrusion of his jaw providing a beautifully physicality. Cain also knows well how to play off another actor. I found the embraces between his and Em Oliver’s character immaculately directed, with the exact positioning of each hand and each arm creating an atmosphere of incredible tenderness. 

Em Oliver is undoubtedly another praise-worthy performer. Their portrayal of anger in ‘Pillowman’ might have benefitted from slightly more subtlety, but that minor fault is where this review must end its complaints. In Oliver’s other two monologues, their performance was more than well-rounded – it was downright flawless. The comedy of ‘Snowflake’ showcased Oliver’s comedic genius, their ability to switch characters a testament to their flexibility as an actor. And ‘Pronoun’ was arguably the night’s show-stopper, the nearest moment to forcing tears into audience’s eyes. Heartfelt, honest, with facial expressions that spoke of authenticity an actor can only dream of portraying, this was Oliver at their finest.

In a similar vein, Etienne Currah acted with poise and clear expertise in his two duologues, with his spotlight in ‘19-10 out of 12’ working as a wonderful expression of relatable comedy. His ability to hold the audience in a silence is a skill to be desired, and although his performance was slightly less well-rounded at certain moments, his stage presence is undeniably captivating at all times. 

Finally, onto Ben Smart. Admittedly, his  performance in ‘Angels of America’ might have benefitted from more of a build-up of anger, even if the character is meant to erupt spontaneously, this loses its shock value after being used multiple times. That said, his performance of ‘Wink’ was likely the well-deserved crowd favourite of the night. Smart perfectly demonstrated how an actor can use a space to its full potential, creating setting after setting before our eyes as his story-telling skills ignited the Assembly Rooms. I have never so enjoyed to hate a character, finding myself laughing at lines of a despicable nature, purely due to their expert delivery. 

I started this review with a wish for all of DST to embody the professionalism of the Finalists’ Showcase. But the truth is that it was only the space and time the showcase facilitated which allowed their talents to shine so brightly. Hiding amongst our selection of actors are many more stars such as these. And I hope that one day they too, like the outstanding cast of the 2022 Durham Showcase, can act as accomplished representatives of what technically detailed and emotionally authentic performances our students can offer. 

Photo credits: Joe Haydon