The National Student Drama Festival

Tuesday 3 April 2007, 18:43

Richard Hurst Richard Hurst Writer

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The National Student Drama Festival comes to an end tomorrow. It's been an enjoyable week, in which a wide variety of shows, events and opinions have come together in a miasma of coffee and alcohol.

Tonight I'll be watching my final show, Al Smith's Radio, staged by Edinburgh University. This production was premiered at the Fringe last summer, after one of Al's previous plays, Enola, had appeared at the 2006 NSDF. He's an extremely talented young writer, and both of these shows, which weave personal stories into American politics and science, were written with humility and humanity. It feels sometimes as if his primary instinct, and skill, is for narrative, rather than drama, but he is certainly a writer to look out for.

Also from Edinburgh University, and displaying a similar warmth and humanity, were a new company called Pangolin's Teatime. Their puppet show, Haozkla, told the story of a young girl who is forced to give up her child as a sacrifice, in order to enable the inhabitants of a distant city to never get ill or die. Told with elegance, wit and humour, it was a real highlight for me, even if some of the darker elements of the story weren't given their full weight. I look forward to seeing what the company come up with next.

Lee Barnes' Talking in the Darkness, a production from Calderdale College, showed a real talent for painful emotional honesty, as well as for wry comedy. As a play it wasn't wholly successful: an examination of a failing relationship, it spent too much time analysing and discussing the emotions, and not enough simply allowing the characters to negotiate their relationship in front of us. But at its best it was engaging, moving and funny.

Charlie Brafman's Cast Aside, billed as a satire on pretentious theatre, divided the Festival. Another Edinburgh Fringe hit, this time from a Nottingham University company, it told the story of a misguided production of The Merchant Of Venice. Half the audience found its crude humour and broad comedy of theatrical self-interest absolutely hilarious, others found it cheap, empty, and questioned why it had been selected at all. The ensuing debate was framed as one between forces of entertainment and serious content, with the latter group being derided as killjoys by the former. But for me the problem with this show was a lack of craft in creating entertainment at all. The writer tended to let his characters deal in discussion of events, rather than in dialogue which carried dramatic action forward; he also seemed to have no affection for them, making this a rather misanthropic and unpleasant experience.

We were also lucky enough to be able to see the UK premiere of Adam Rapp's magical-realist take on heroism and sacrifice, Stone Cold Dead Serious. In this play, a teenage boy from Chicago travels to New York with his mute online girlfriend to take part in a live action version of a samurai computer game. Although the play's cavalier approach to reality baffled many Festival goers, others enjoyed a play that was genuinely innovative, and perhaps with Talking To Terrorists, was the only show that seemed to be crucially about the time we are living in right now.

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