“A memorable glimpse of the best that drama here has to offer: actors working to near-professional standards, impressive directing, and creative originality in the choice of texts…

Durham Student Theatre’s Finalist Showcase, performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre, gives a memorable glimpse of the best that drama here has to offer: actors working to near-professional standards, impressive directing, and creative originality in the choice of texts. This last factor is especially influential in the success of the showcase, as the pieces often touch on young adults experiencing relationship struggles, loss, trauma, and even the plights of finding oneself in ‘Shagaluf’ as a graduate. In short, all touch on emotions and experiences which a student-filled theatre can relate to.

Credit must be given to co-directors Emily Browning and Emily Phillips for the clever ordering of scenes, with constant switches between comedy, drama, and song. It is laughter, however, which ultimately triumphs: Zara Stokes-Neustadt and Ben Lewis open the show with a humorous blend of office romance and misunderstandings in their dialogue from Labour of Love (James Graham). Their no-nonsense attitude to a nonsensical situation has the audience engaged and energised, ready for the darker – but no less gripping – pieces of the show.

One such performance is Louise Coggrave in a monologue from Cold Blooded Murderer (Elisa Thompson). A single spotlight directs our full attention to her – a simple lighting choice often and effectively used in the show. With or without it, however, Coggrave exudes frightful authority over the audience through her stare and body language. Her grim tale of brutality is recited not aggressively, but with a more discomforting languor as she hunts for the gaze of individual audience members – all with a slouch-seated attitude. Bhav Amar commands the stage in her monologue (I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel), utilising the limited space to full effect. Her performance is finely balanced between sensitivity and rage throughout, with dynamic vocalisation and gestures. She embodies her role with confidence, unfailingly captivating the audience’s attention.

Isabel Askew shines with her versatility. In Sunday in the Park with George, she slips effortlessly into song, lulling us with her light timbre and airy vibrato. Her facial expressions and body language wonderfully accompany her comedic act as she – George’s muse, bored and sweltering under a summer’s heat – must stand patiently for her portrait. Both Askew and Alfie Cook master farce in this showcase. While Askew fights with her temperamental parasol, Cook goes so far as to undo his trousers in one of his scenes (Touch by Vicky Jones). This duologue between Cook and Coggrave brings the same infectious laughter as the opening performance, with the audience cackling well after both actors have exited the stage. Cook’s charisma and confidence deserves special recognition; he brilliantly portrays a man awkwardly navigating the taunts of a love interest. The effervescent chemistry between the actors is impressive. They maintain constant energy and pace throughout the piece, oscillating confidently between Cook’s growing confusion and Coggrave’s witty replies. 

The show includes 21 performances and an interval, which in my opinion could be omitted – the first act is so engrossing one wishes it were not interrupted! However, with the second act the flexibility of the actors is highlighted, as all actors take on even more multi-faceted roles. In the duologue between Honor Calvert and Alfie Cook (Love and Money, Dennis Kelly), the two leave the audience sitting in discomfort, unsure whether to giggle or gasp at his obstinate need to track his spouse. In this scene, Calvert has witnessed a stabbing, but Cook appears more concerned with the precise reason for her being on Oxford Street at the time. Mentions of a mental hospital and Calvert’s harrowing description of bodies as ‘bags of liquid’ only adds to this tense atmosphere. Calvert’s subtle mannerisms allow the horror of her descriptions to seep through her character’s restrained demeanour. Both actors do an excellent job at highlighting the struggles of their cryptic communication through their agitated body language, making it clear that these frustrated characters are talking at each other rather than engaging in a constructive conversation.

Bella Chapman and James Roberts excel in their duologue (Strategic Love Play, Miriam Battye), with flawless chemistry and delivery. Both actors dive deep beneath their lines, using every physical and vocal tool at the disposal to convey just as much what the characters aren’t saying as what they are. The piece flits between the perfect amount of awkward tension and tender, amusing relief, creating a scene that’s sweet and endearing – a pleasant compliment to other extracts. In Askew’s monologue (Lava, James Frith), she demonstrates her skill in perhaps a more trying situation, that of addressing a fictitious companion, imagined to be sitting in a chair opposite her. The possibility that she could indeed be inventing this character becomes increasingly viable as she conveys neurotic energy, getting increasingly aggravated by the unresponsiveness of this ‘friend’. She gets up, sits back down, struggles not to fidget on her chair, and ultimately must get up again to release her agitation, making use once again of her powerful voice to cry out her frustration. It is a puzzling scene, but one that leaves the audience pondering on its weight and significance rather than being merely confused.

All the performances in this year’s showcase demonstrate not only immense acting skills, but an ability to create as a team. In fact, the actors excel most in duologues, which is a sure testament to their adaptability in developing chemistry with others. A huge well done to both directors and the entire acting team for a marvellous showcase of talent.

Photo Credits: Durham Student Theatre