Party

Thu 1st – Sat 3rd December 2011

reviews

Serena Gosden-Hood

at 23:07 on 1st Dec 2011

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It may be worth pointing out that, when I set off for the Assembly Rooms this evening, (un)fresh from a sleepless week of deadlines and nursing the crux of a particularly spiteful cold, the last thing I was in the mood for was a play. However, it didn't take long for Dom Riley's production of "Party" to convince me that showing up had been the right decision (especially in light of the fact that there's nothing more exhausting than reviewing a production you haven't bothered to go and see).

The action of the play takes place in a generic garden shed where four fervent young people are attempting to form a liberal political party, whose manifesto consists of a handful of stockpiled platitudes and some spuriously directed passion. The fifth member of the group (Duncan) has actually been enticed to the shed by the misconception that the 'party' referred to on the invitation is to be a social gathering in honour of his birthday.

The evening kicked off with some very well-handled interactive theatre. I was greeted at the stage door by the flustered and faintly pained figure of Duncan (Will Clarke) clutching a bottle of wine like a talisman and, upon entering the auditorium, I was confronted by several other cast members who seemed anxious to extract my undoubtedly highly evolved views on such pertinent political concerns as Richard Gere and the location of Australia. Most unsettling was the aura of mad devotion radiated by Mel (Caroline Gaunt) on the former topic and the somewhat maniacal vacancy of Phoebe (Grace Cheatle) on the subject of fair trade.

The consistently hilarious script did get off to a slightly slow start due, in part, to some imperfect projection and annunciation on the part of all members of the cast, with the exception of Clarke whose shy stutter seemed to carry to the rafters without ever lessening the endearingly apologetic tenor of his performance. The energy of Jared (John Muething), however, managed to quickly instate the necessary momentum, particularly when sparks flew between him and the resolutely alienating Mel (Gaunt). I was, however, a little disappointed by Muething's decision not to attempt an English accent, which the language and terminology employed by his character seemed to call for. Although Muething's performance was consistently good, with some wonderful use of body language, I can't help feeling that when a specific accent is clearly required in order to avoid shades of incongruity the actor ought to at least give it ‘the old college try’. This, however, was a minor, and quickly forgotten, niggle in an overall excellent performance.

No less enjoyable was the gleeful vacuity of Cheatle's Phoebe, particularly during her brief sojourn on the soapbox! Hywel Thomas (as Short Coat) also provided a much-needed juxtaposition of sanity in the face of the otherwise empty conceptual free-for-all that formed the substance of the remaining characters’ conversation. Indeed, the faint suggestion of caricature in all but Thomas’s performance was an excellent way of depicting the increasing synonymity of political rhetoric and theatre, a point that Basden’s entire script seems to be making.

Ben Anscombe, gave a good performance as Jones, the noticeable highpoints of which involved his ardent nursing of the coffee pot and fiery defense of his hair follicles. Despite being required to shout at various other points during the production Anscombe is to be commended for managing to reserve the peek of his outrage for the moment when his fellow party members accuse him of the crime of immanent baldness.

Director Dom Riley's handling of blocking was deft and understated enabling the focus to shift seamlessly from one desired focal point to another in a manner that balanced the realistic and the stylised to great satirical effect. It was, however, a shame that Gaunt's position on far stage right left her face slightly too far from the light, which made it difficult to enjoy her consistently fertile facial expressions.

All in all this was a relatively seamless, and hugely energized, rendition of a delightful play that had an invigorating effect on audience and cast alike. It is not a Party to be missed!

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Florence Strickland

at 10:00 on 2nd Dec 2011

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After hearing that ‘Party’ was a Radio Four play that didn’t leave one feeling miserable and dejected on a Sunday afternoon, I was very much looking forward to my trip to the Assembly Rooms to see how director Dom Riley, and Ben Weaver-Hincks (producer) would translate this piece of political satire to the stage.

Whilst innocently waiting outside the theatre I slowly became aware of a confused, and perhaps disturbed, member of the Durham student body equipped with a bottle of wine. After a while he asked me where Hatfield was. He clarified his position outside this hallowed college, and returned to me (now slightly alarmed). He then introduced himself as Duncan, and asked me where the party was. I suddenly realised that unlike most of the plays I had seen, ‘Party’ had made its way out of the theatre and onto the streets of Durham. In this highly successful and amusing act of metatheatre, cast immediately interacted with audience.

But it did not end there. Upon entrance to the theatre a dominant female, in character, (who I was later to find would be Caroline Gaunt as Mel) accosted me on my opinions of Fair-trade. Even in the programme, reality and political satire were combined, with headshots of Sarah Palin to Stalin instead of the cast. The provision of a rather ambitious party outline (2029 DEADLINE for discovery of extraterrestrial life (key election promise)) added to this excellent directorial decision to blur the lines of reality, with much enjoyment from the audience.

The transition from daily life into the garden shed of ‘Party’ was therefore a slow initiation, before we were introduced to the true absurdity of this haphazard group of people, very keen to do the right thing. All social issues are addressed with gusto, especially by the more domineering characters of Mel and Jared (John Muething). “RECESSION??” was inscribed upon the whiteboard, and during a discussion on Muslims and racism the characters’ approach to political correctness created hilarity amongst audience members, as the continuously clever nature of Tom Basden’s script highlighted the modern society’s state of caution. Basden emphasises this point, with another directorial success from Dom Riley, when a two minute incomprehensible screaming match between all characters ensues after Jared’s reference to the female cast as “girls”. Caroline Gaunt’s strident caricature of a feminist, picking on any kind (or not) of sexism leads the cause, only to later accuse Jared and Jones later of an action that is “such a male thing to do”. Yet the same set of people have an equal argument on drinking the right coffee (Fair-trade says Mel), resulting in a winning tantrum from Ben Anscombe as Jones - the windows in the sides of the shed providing glimpses of him storming in the garden, which proved to be a comic highlight for the audience.

The nod to the, often, ridiculous nature of political bureaucracy is excellent, with the modern issues of the day debated amongst bicycles and a garden hose in the shed of Jared’s garden – with occasional screams of anguish from his Buddhist mother in the wings. Indeed the set was a triumph on the part of Michael Nower (technical director), with the subtle presence of these random objects in the shed irrelevant to the events within.

Democracy was the order of the day, and absolutely everything was to be conducted by vote. Of course, problems arose when the result of the voting elected Duncan as leader, in a comic portrayal of individuals’ power struggle. Special praise should certainly go to Will Clarke as Duncan, who became his character right down to the nervous twitches of his body language. His lack of real understanding of the aims of The Party (or potentially named “‘Gladios’…Latin for sword?”) further exposed its regular bouts of foolishness. The also well-developed characterisation of the others meant that the cast constantly bounced off each other (not literally) in a grapple for political and intellectual superiority – often asserting random, false or absurd facts in order to ‘have a say’. At times, perhaps the drama of politics over came the slightly over-enthusiastic cast, however the unity and chemistry of the characters was a real success.

The audience were constantly involved with the clever staging of the cast in a subtle semi-circle around the stage – Mel and Jones, symbolic of their constant arguing, placed on opposing sides of the stage. Even after the play finished the much-debated lemon drizzle cake began to be consumed, as the audience left the theatre.

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