With Dennis Kelly’s recent successes bringing him increasingly into the public eye, it’s hardly surprising that DNA has been chosen as a set text for schools. The play explores the desolate and warped worlds of a group of teenagers who, when faced with the prospect of prison, decide to cover up the accidental death of their friend, Adam. On their its night at the Unicorn theatre, half way through its national tour, Hull Truck was performing to an audience mainly comprised of students – entirely appropriate for the tone of this production. However, in clearly focusing on presenting the themes and overall message, I felt that director Anthony Banks somewhat lost sight of the dramatic potential of Kelly’s poignant writing.
Visually, the production was very engaging. The set featured a flexible panelled backdrop through which the cast, and the set, swiftly emerged and disappeared. Designer Andrzej Goulding artistically used projection to conjure up a sense of place, with recurring locations including the local forest and the view from the hill where Phil (James Alexandrou) and Leah (Leah Brotherhood) have their recurring scenes. However, other than the momentary images of the barren streets from a moving bus, I felt that the warm setting hindered the creation of the bleak and austere atmosphere in which these characters needed to be placed. Similarly, the characters lacked any real sense of the roughness the plot and script seemed to imply. However, perhaps this was a deliberate move by Banks to show the flexibility of the characters and their ability to be performed by any young person anywhere in the country, creating a sense of recognition between the audience and the cast.
A notable performance was that of Alexandrou as Phil, the only character with the true rawness and depth expected of such a dark plot. Despite remaining silent throughout the majority of the play, he was undoubtedly the most captivating cast member. When he did speak he commanded the attention of the audience in a way that the rest of the cast did not. His speeches, which were significant in driving the plot, were delivered with a captivating intensity. Unfortunately, I felt that this was mainly down to the unconventional and complex structure of Kelly’s writing, which means that the play lacks a real climax, or conclusion, which prevents the actors from gripping onto any real sense of urgency. With a group of schoolboys sitting behind me, any drop in energy was palpable, as they would resume their unrelated conversation. However, characteristically I think this intensity during Phil’s lines was vital to present the hierarchy of their friendship. Through Bank’s direction and Kelly’s writing, the audience were struck by the inferiority of Brian (Daniel Francis-Swaby,) Richard (George Brockbanks) and the others. These other roles included Leah Brotherhood as Leah, Tom Clegg as Danny, Rhys Jennings as John, Emily Butterfield as Lou and Elexi Walker as Cathy. They were all faced with the challenge of tackling the demanding writing of Kelly, with his shockingly realistic lines recognisable from everyday conversation. Phil’s character spoke differently – he was more minimal and direct – which perhaps aided Alexandrou in captivating the audience. His calm composure and lackadaisical manner were comical and necessary to overpower the stuttering and inadequacy of the others. With the blessing of accurate casting by Jim Arnold, the hierarchy of the characters was suggested instantaneously.
While I currently struggle with devising my A-level piece, I felt this production featured too many recognisable elements from GCSE drama. However, the pulsing drums, atmospheric sounds and purposeful walks can be easily mirrored and used by drama students around the country and, despite my pedantic criticism of the misguided atmosphere and lack of urgency, I do strongly feel that this text is perfect as a set text. Hull Truck’s performance truthfully delivered the story while inspiring and recognising its target audience; it has undoubtedly given the students something to explore and discuss in the less favoured style of an essay.
DNA is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 29th April, for more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre’s website.