“a masterpiece of theatre and of student-writing”

Original student theatre at Durham University never ceases to amaze me. Take student-written comedies: the material is often relatable and intentionally funny, usually without trying too hard. Conversely, with more existential and/or thematically heavy plays, there is often a depth of understanding and rootedness which almost makes one refuse to believe that it is the brainchild of a university student. James Barber’s ‘If That’s What You Want… Then Yes’, without a shadow of a doubt, encapsulates all of these things, as its standard is nothing less than superlative. I witnessed a play that is raw, mature beyond its age, and so very real, to the extent that the audience is occasionally left wriggling uncomfortably in our seats because of how close it is to home. Barber, with the help of talented co-directors Julia Kennerley and Charlotte Aspden, elicits feeling and involuntary reaction unlike any other, taking human experience and putting it directly onstage, in full display. I could not be more impressed.

There is almost too much to be said about how effective Barber’s writing is. As aforementioned, it is incredibly mature, but it is also playful and provocative. Throughout the play, the dialogue has a witty, conversational sense about it, but it never fails to make subtle pokes and prods at underlying messages and meanings. This is one of Barber’s major successes, as it never feels like he is trying to make a point, but a point is always made. It recalls the style of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’, and if you know me at all you will know that this is the highest form of praise you can get. Barber has no qualms about tackling the emotional ins-and-outs of relationships, the dynamic between man and woman, the meaning and expression of love, and the role which sex inadvertently plays in our lives. Set in the intimate City Theatre, with its beautifully minimalist lighting and set design, one cannot help but be wrapped up in the tension (sexual and otherwise) of this relationship and in its slow-burn spiral and unravelling. 

There is also the issue of how difficult it is to successfully execute a two-person play, especially one whose dialogue is a continuous and fast-paced back-and-forth. However challenging, I do not think there is another duo who could have tackled it as brilliantly as Amy Davis and James Roberts. Somehow, the two of them managed to navigate the fine line between the hypersexualised intimacy of their relationship and the emotional rift that exists between their characters. Their naturalistic presentation of typical man-woman arguments achieved much nervous laughter, but they also stunned the audience (signified by our sharp intakes of breath) at various instances when obstacles confront their relationship. Davis and Roberts deliver such powerfully tragic performances, taking their respective characters in evidently opposing directions and breaking our hearts in the process. Unadulterated, is the word that comes to mind; even in the absence of melodramatic outbursts or monologues, actor and actress leave everything out on the stage, making their every emotion felt and having the audience feel them too. 

‘If That’s What You Want… Then Yes’ autopsies what seems like an entirely real relationship right in front of your eyes, presenting numerous rhetorical questions which leave you with a lot to consider. Barber’s effective dialogue, coupled with the unrivalled talent and of Davis and Roberts and their palpable onstage chemistry make for a masterpiece of theatre and of student-writing. 

By Charlie Moscrop

If That’s What You Want…Then Yes then is performing at the City Theatre until 10th June

Photo Credits: Suffragette Theatre company