Catherine Perkins, Second Year Classics with Archaeology and Theology
Pick Ups. Everyone’s worst nightmare? Or a once in a lifetime chance to put on a show that could just bag you a win for life? This show certainly oscillated between the two.
Members of the Fresher cohorts of St John’s and St Chad’s Colleges played, staged, directed and produced this play, before a thronging crowd in Leech Hall, St John’s College on 24th November 2019.
After a welcoming entry and a slight delay, the string of short sketches around the theme of pick-ups began. Despite some clever meta-theatricalism at its opening, the performance immediately gave off a very “Fresher” tone, focused on hook-ups, sex, drinking and little else. Though there were laughs from the start, much of the amusement felt cliché and did not feel retained through the rest of the performance.
John’s-appropriate references injected some life into individual scenes, but simultaneously added a note of confusion to the cohesion of the performance. Was each scene designed to be in or derived from the same bar, showing different scenes through the night? Was this bar in Durham? Or were the characters Durham students somewhere else? The minimalist furniture and props, although effectively flexible to each scene, also led to inconclusiveness in this regard. Where the audience was moving to, or not, and whether the fourth wall was in place, or not, lacked clear signposting. More sustained Durham references, such as to the Assembly Rooms or Klute, could have perhaps been an easy way to ensure continuity and clarity, or foregoing these altogether.
Movement from scene to scene was also stilted and prolonged blackouts disrupted the flow of the plot. What plot there was found its feet purely in individual characterisation, but with actors playing multiple characters, it was again unclear whether the recurrence of an actor signalled the return of a character. Although costume changes were used to a degree, these were limited, and investment in better props, such as a more permanent moustache, would have been beneficial.
That said, the performances of Peter Houston, Sarah Woodburn and Antoine Cothier were commendable, providing reflective, considered and, at times, disturbing performances. Beyond this, several characters seemed overplayed, and the recurrent Wii theme music at the entry of Samad Chowdhury, although comedic at his first entry, became over-used and lost its effect. I wonder whether the director, Megan Ratcliffe, should have looked more towards using natural comedic timing and subtle and sustained characterisation in place of flaky accents and gestures, facial expressions, and vocal tones which were over-exaggerated to push a comedic effect.
Where genuine innovation was employed, it reaped rewards. Use of a silent scene, and the lighting devices used by technical director Benji Etheridge to create the effect of toilet cubicles were commendable. The use of a freeze-psychoanalysis scene where characters’ conflicting mental attitudes were played out was also improved by use of lighting, and a variety in pace. The involvement of non-cast members in the final scene was noticeable and effectively regained the attention of some of the audience members whose attention had drifted as the scenes dragged on.
However, at the end of the play, there was still one question that remained unanswered in my head.
Disturbed, unamused and confused, I struggled to grasp what the aim of this performance had been. Although there was an increasing number of non-binary hook-ups portrayed as the play went on, and a few instances of female romantic pursuit, the play felt gender stereotyped and sexually normative, with alcohol a permanent feature on stage. It promoted the image of pick-ups as an appropriate method of encounter, and, in a week where news has been dominated by revelations surrounding the murder of backpacker Grace Millane, jokes about sexual mutilation and murder during sexual intercourse seemed highly inappropriate. In an age which is increasingly railing against behaviours such as these, this play felt out of place indeed.
In many places, I found myself drawn more to the Salvador Dali prints on the walls than to allow myself to witness, and tacitly agree, with the action on the stage.
Updated: 10/12/19 – Name Correction