After a lengthy stint at its creative birthplace at Bristol University, the Inter University Drama Festival arrived with full force at York for a three day long weekend of dramatic festivities. A triumph and success for the University of York’s Drama Society, who, with chair Louis Lunts leading the way, pulled of the weekend without a hitch. This festival was a striking example of high calibre talent and original creativity from all over the country. With six universities taking part: York, Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle, UCL and Royal Holloway, the weekend was not only a showcase of dramatic skill but a unique chance for students to meet and mingle with other young people, like themselves, passionate about theatre. Each university provided a script, student written, a producer and a cast to compete, and were then individually assessed and critiqued by festival judges Dan Wood and Dominic Allen. Both Wood and Allen were previous chairs of York’s Dramasoc, and have had illustrious experience in writing, directing and performing. Together, they provided valuable critique as well as offering two workshops that ran alongside the performances, for all the students to take part in. Here is a step by step guide of the weekend, a run-down of each performance and all the background info on the universities.
The first performance on Saturday was York’s very own production Dog Days, written and directed by James Soldan and produced by Katie Lambert. The story is a recreation of the events that inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Central character John Wojtowicz (Jason Ryall) leads a cast of nine as he attempts to show what ‘actually happened’ that Summer afternoon in 1972 when he and partner Sal (Toby King) robbed the Chase Manhattan bank in downtown Brooklyn. However, as they quickly discover this is not as straight forward as it sounds. Memories collide, tempers fray, and John’s recreation rapidly runs out of control. This performance was impressive both in its ability to tell a complex and infamous story superbly, and in its flawless production that included fast paced lighting changes and a crime scene-esque marked out set on the black floor. Judges Wood and Allen commented on the strength of leading actor Ryall in his ability to lead the cast flawlessly with his lengthy monologues, as well as the ensemble of female actors who embodied their individual characters fantastically, providing a comic and equally as strong ensemble. The period, being late 1970s America, was evident not only in the authentic costumes and props, but in the dialogue and accents used by the actors. Although impressively sustained, one critique would be that the accents were sometimes the downfall of the piece, slipping slightly into the exaggerated or uncertain. Allen and Wood also added how it might be wise for Soldan to consider different endings to the piece, simply to explore all dramatic options before deciding which one is best. This performance was smooth and controlled, wonderfully done, and set the tone, and bar, high for the rest of the weekend.
Next to take to the stage was Bristol with their production Blood Lullaby, written and directed by Vanessa Kisuule, produced by Franky Green and Laura Taylor. Blood Lullaby is a play essentially about the common delusions surrounding love and relationships, the universal plague of romance and the distortion of the ‘happy family’ within contemporary society. Audrey (Alice Kirk) and Chris (Ed Phillips) are a couple going through the motions and making the right gestures, but they both know that something is missing. They decide early on in their bohemian and eccentric relationship, the nuclear style family is not for them. However, their inability to have children makes them realise just how different they are. We meet the couple when things are forced and hard, and we know a long harboured secret could bring their fragile relationship to breaking point. Acting wise, this play was great, the two leads carried the performance superbly, bouncing of each other and beautifully exposing the moral and emotional complexity of the subject matter. The writing was strikingly poetic and metaphoric, with deep and lengthy prose forming a shifting narrative throughout. Although poignant and touching at times, this was often misconstrued by the audience, due to what Allen and Wood called the jarring factor of having such surreal and dreamy moments clashing with instances of naturalism. This was not helped by the staging which was quite vague and absurd at times. However, this was overall an impressive and imaginative production, a shocking and moving exploration of a marriage falling apart at the frays.
Newcastle performed next, a production called Scheme, written by Dale Pearson, directed by himself and Alice Sharman, produced by Jemima Carvill, Rosie Whisenant and Dan Bradshaw. The highly comic play is about a series of job interviews, run by an important head-of-insurance-company-businessman and a chirpy, ambitious woman desperate to make a good impression. One is tired with the clichéd swarm of ‘gap-year’ enthusiasts, pretentiously seeking out a position at the company, whilst the woman is trying urgently to hold onto what’s left of protocol and ritual. Between the two of them, hilarity and chaos ensues, as revelations about the others’ past business ventures come to light, and tension between the two reaches dizzying heights. The acting shined particularly in the comic timing, which was impressively on point throughout. Leads Richard Speirs and Louise Anderson were flawless in their dual delivery of lines and quick fire relationship. The acting was a fantastic reflection of the directing by Pearson and Sharman, who managed to find a balance between naturalism and a farcical-like comedy brilliantly. The writing was sound, hilarious at times, biting into the absurd nature of interviews whist commenting satirically on the pretentious personalities people inhabit when pursuing jobs. Critically, judges Wood and Allen suggested that the writing could possibly be veered in an even more comic direction, pushing at the already fantastic material. Overall, this show was an impressive performance, as well as providing a needed comic break for the audience.
From the extremely comical, to the extremely touching, Glasgow transported and moved us in their production of Sk(in), a performance of two monologues by Ross Wylie and Lucy McCalister, written and directed by John May. Centred on two completely different people, two completely different experiences, May challenged the human perception of skin: what it means to feel comfortable or uncomfortable in it, how skin affects our day to day lives, how it serves as an identity, a purpose. Firstly, Ross Wylie performed a beautifully poignant monologue about a gay man’s experience following a rather uncomfortable experiment. The language both overwhelmed and deeply captivated the audience, who at times did not know whether to laugh or cry. As an actor, Wylie confidently displayed a startling ability to make a truly intense and shocking subject, normal and connectable to the audience. Indeed, this skill was extended to McCalister, who, with her back to the audience throughout her entire monologue, created an equally as intense atmosphere with her tone and voice- both of which strained with anguish and pain. To reveal anymore about the plot of either monologue would be to detract and belittle the statement and theatrical moment that was created by both of the actors. Wood and Allen were equally as moved by the performance, claiming it to be both “brave” and “honest” in its interpretation and writing. To critique it would only be to mention the other possible routes the director could have chosen blocking and performance wise, to maybe experiment with the minimalism and simplicity of the piece even more. Glasgow truly delivered a stunning performance, one which stayed in the audiences’ mind for the rest of the weekend.
Sunday opened with a wonderful performance by Royal Holloway. The play was called Search Party, written by Owen Collins. The whole barn was transformed into a woodland, with twigs and logs placed on the stage. The three actors Joe Feeney, Stanley Eldridge and Ollie Clarke played three men, different ages, and different personalities, looking to find an unspecified lost child in the woods. As they sit to have a rest, the three talk about the meaning of life, and the different personal struggles, triumphs and downfalls of each character comes to light. The three competent actors held their own, each digging deep to find their individual character, and succeeding greatly. The striking feature of this piece was the simplistic comedy that was emitted from the genuine and truthful performances: it avoided becoming a clichéd or stereotypical comedy. The writer was able to contrast hugely dynamic, comic moments with instances of integrity and deep thought about religion, morality and society. Director Ethan Lawrence worked hard at providing a thought provoking production, and succeeded particularly well in the staging and manipulation of space. The way in which he placed the actors at strategic points demonstrated not only a knowledge of the script, but of an understanding of audience perspective: we were able to correlate moments of tension or drama with the seating and positioning of the actors, a subtle yet powerful attribute of the play. Allen and Wood commented only on the ending, which left the audience in an ambiguous and vague state of mind. They called this a “wonderful aspect” of the play, and urged an audience discussion about how ‘happy endings’ often ruin or degrade a piece of drama. Outstanding work from the university, and a fantastic start to the day.
From the poignant and naturalistic, UCL transported us to a faraway land in their performance of Darkness Invisible. This final performance of the weekend was written and directed by Rob Thompson, starring an impeccable cast, who told the story about the people who told stories. An unsure and ambiguous beginning led the audience into a magical spectacle, about a family clouded in darkness, trying to make sense of the world they live in through the stories and books they are given. There is love, loss and death, interwoven amongst slightly surreal stories, culminating in a vast and theatrical production. It was simultaneously strange and wonderful, how the audience were moved to tears by a script which in many ways did not feel real. The true genius laid in Thompson’s ability as a writer to create characters which the audience related to, and as a director his ability to transform the barn into a remote and imaginative land, full of possibilities. My personal remarks on the performance were that it was cinematic, to the point where I almost felt as if I were watching a film! The relationship between the characters was established perfectly, even if I sometimes had no idea where the story was heading. It was broad and brave, but equally as well done. Sometimes limited by the scope of the time and space the barn allowed, yet just as touching as the other performances. Allen and Wood said they would have loved to have seen the moments of drama or tension to have been taken even further, perhaps using the space and physicality even more. It is true that the performance was sometimes met by technical dead ends or disadvantages, however the togetherness and comradity of the actors meant that any slight faults were left unnoticed by the audience.
And so the long weekend drew to a close. A vast array of colourful and imaginative talent proved not only the presence of theatre within universities, but its importance in remaining a central part of student life. It was a flawless exhibition of skill and teamwork, providing a glimpse into the drama societies that cover the nation. Not only were the plays fantastic, but the passion and motivation of all the universities showed how good and professionally theatre can be done by students. Friendships were made, and theatre created… here’s to another brilliant year of drama.