Dead end
Credit: Oxford Playhouse

Heading towards Dead End

A new play is set to hit the stage of the Burton Taylor Studio at the Oxford Playhouse next week, written and produced by Oxford students. Dead End by Marie Doinne is a beautifully intimate play consisting of two leads, Bea and Olivia, and the slow, inescapable dissolution of their childhood friendship. Before its premiere tomorrow night, the Oxford Student was invited to attend a rehearsal and exclusively preview the dramatic machinery in the works.

Saturday morning in a room at St Peter’s College, and the cast is running through a scene with Marie and Jupiter Green, the director and assistant respectively. It is a first glimpse into the world of Bea and Olivia, of hand-crafted pottery and marketing strategies and a simmering dissatisfaction – resentment almost – that bites the tenor of their exchange. 

Marie takes down notes in a book, and everyone flips back and forth through their paper scripts, going over the same scene again and again. First, they run through the entire section of the script, then as Marie and Jupiter catch onto specific lines, actions and nuances of characterisation, the scenes become shorter, and their meticulous attention concentrated on bringing critical lines to their full emotional power.

One aspect that both the actors and directors identified as key to unlocking a realist conversation-based play like this one is finding the “intention” behind every spoken word. Maisie, playing Olivia, explained how in contrast to comedy or absurdist plays, each line needs to be searched for emotion on a microscopic level in order to bring the character out of a two-dimensional rendering. With each reading, they honed in more on the particular traits that appeared at points of subtle change. It was fascinating to watch Marie and Jupiter discuss acting notes and give their interpretations – but the lively and supportive deliberation between them seemed to unify and crystalise the play.

I asked Marie if, as both writer and director, she was ever tempted to change lines after trying them out in rehearsal. The room burst into mischievous laughter as I gave the question – there have indeed been alterations to “tiny bits of wording” for clarity, and Marie noted that sometimes talking with team members would spark more ideas. Her favourite part of working on the play has been having “really, really interesting conversations” with everyone and getting deeper into the story. 

Ultimately, she wants her words to “ring true” – in the context of the play’s focus on human experience, this ‘true-to-life’ approach is promising (though she did assure me “on the record”, nonetheless, that no more changes would be made). For Jupiter, a touching moment during the play’s production was the end of the very first read-through, a “satisfying and cathartic moment” when she could see the “whole arc” and knew that it would work.

In fact, speaking to the directors about inspiration for the play and the themes that drive their interpretation offered a stirring conversation about each of our perceptions of the world – specifically on divergent values and how that affects friendship, sometimes irreparably. It started with the observation that we tend to be friends with people who are similar to us. “In childhood, well, if you have fun, that’s good enough right?” says Marie. “Why is that not enough in real life? Why, when you start having a job, when you start having responsibilities … why suddenly having fun is not enough anymore?”

Sophie, who plays Bea, commented on how as they become distant from one another, the characters in the play start focusing on the differences in their views rather than the similarities that brought them together. Even though they were childhood friends, “different experiences have magnified during the decade”, and it is interesting to consider against the constancy of friendship the gap between “current you” and a “past you”. 

As Jupiter said, it becomes a question of “how do we weigh up [friendships] when the other things that are really important to us conflict with that”. In the world today, where social media intensifies our values, and even goads them to belligerence, this question becomes pressingly topical.

In any case, from my short visit, this is only the tip of the iceberg to the “deep personal level” which forms the poignantly relevant foundation of Dead End, and a very promising preview of its fully-fledged performance next week. The cast and crew seems to be a fantastically well-balanced and cooperative team – I’m expecting nothing less than dreamwork!

Dead End opens on 7 May and will run nightly until 11 May.