STAGE REVIEW: Next Round | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Originally set to run at Underbelly before the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe Festival was cancelled, a modified one-hour version of County Durham-native Billie Aken-Tyers’ play NEXT ROUND premiered as part of Onstage: Online with an exceptionally positive response from its online audience. Providing a platform for local theatre-makers to explore fresh, innovative ways to create theatre and showcase their work, the creative teams at Gala Theatre, Durham and Durham University’s Durham Student Theatre organised this digital theatre festival that ran from 11 – 14 June in response to the COVID-19 lockdown. Initially scheduled for a limited one-week run online, NEXT ROUND will now be available to view until Monday 29th June.

Written by and starring four actors from the North East, NEXT ROUND centres around a weekly pub quiz in a small town in the North East of England, as Steph, played by writer Billie Aken-Tyers herself, moves through the worst year of her life, grieving for the loss of her father, who loved a good old fashioned Pub Quiz. Her best friends Ant (Dean Bone) and Harry (Luke Antony Neville) each accompany her in their own way on this journey as they all explore who they are, how to grieve and that growing up is realising that no one knows how to be a grown up.

The play is essentially a Zoom call, with each character filmed in isolation, but pretending they are all together in the same room, passing each other drinks, kissing etc. It requires a suspension of disbelief from the outset and even with the background noise of a pub scene, you never really feel that you’re there at the pub with them. We’re all taking part in pub quizzes online now (or has that trend burned out already?) and so to witness an attempt at an old-school pub quiz where all the teams are in the same space feels bizarre. Especially when the larger-than-life quiz host dominates the action, interrupting the vulnerability that’s being examined with his coarseness and crap jokes. Perhaps that was the intention: for me, it’s simply overdone, more like a caricature. The close-up filming has its advantages, however, as the amazing range of expressions that pass across Billie Aken-Tyers’ face carry you along on her personal path of mixed emotions.

It’s an interesting watch with a strong script: an intriguing adventure into what can be achieved in terms of performance right now and the themes explored are spot on. I just couldn’t lose myself in it, but then, I’m struggling to lose myself in anything online. That’s part of the curse of these unprecedented times. I cannot wait to see it live, because I have a feeling this is a play that needs to be seen live.

You can hopefully see the finished, complete production of the show at the Underbelly, Edinburgh Fringe next year. Until then, this fascinating online presentation of this work in progress will give you a foretaste of what to look forward to.


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