24 7 THEATRE FESTIVAL
New Century House To 1 August 2010.
When is a festival not a festival? Manchester’s answer is: when it’s a platform.
Sitting comfortably between the top-of-the-range programme of something like Edinburgh’s International Festival and the take-your-chance all-comers nature of its Fringe, the week-long 24:7 new plays programme that’s been held each late July in Manchester since 2004 is a chance to see new plays that have been sifted as scripts.
Following acceptance, the playwright assembles director and cast for their hour-long play; something slightly shorter’s permitted, but at the 60th minute the blue-pencil, or its offspring the delete-button comes into play. With most shows having a half-hour turnaround there’s no room for indulgence.
This year the number of shows is down to ten (plus four rehearsed readings of scripts in development) over two rooms in sponsoring Cooperative Society’s New Century House. Close to Manchester’s centre – and its inner-ring road – the place still seems remote. It’s been noted as less than ideal, two fit-up auditoriums either side a corridor, with limited sound insulation and little front-of-house wise. Still, this is a festival of the new and there’s something to be said for a somewhat improvised feel and the sense of bursting against limitations.
Each production has a slot most of the seven days, either at lunchtime or in three evening segments – more at weekends. Because 24:7 is a self-described ‘platform’ it leaves decisions about personnel to the writer. All they know is that there will be a space for their work at certain times over seven days. Technical ambition has to be limited; a raised one-level stage with a set number of lighting positions has to do for all. In itself this influences scripts and productions, as one of this year’s shows made evident as it tested the limits.
Russian ambition and sanctuary realism
That was The Inconsistent Whisper of Insanity, Ian Moore’s time-hopping account of a teenager caught between the early years of Bolshevism and the White Russian reaction. It’s a story of trains and trams, with 15-year old Milena caught between the two sides, and – a further complication – with her future self looking back from sixty years on.
Much of this is clear from a programme note (maybe the reason Black Box Theatre, who have also shown the piece in Liverpool and Buxton, were selling their programmes rather than giving them away). It’s a lot less apparent from the piece, which is built through in fragmentary events rooted in stylised ensemble moves, tableaux and rhythmic sounds, both live and pre-recorded.
The ensemble – together with the movable screens with sprayed and applied images – is the piece’s strength, pointing-up the chaos of a young person’s experiences in revolutionary (not to mention counter-revolutionary) times. Individual performances are vocally far less well characterised; it’s the group that makes the piece.
With a projection screen built into the rear wall of the Pioneer Stage (a name marking the Co-op’s sponsorship, as the other auditorium, the Elphick, recalls the late Michael Elphick, an actor who encouraged new work) every bird has its tern in Dick Curran’s Islanders, a straightforward piece about the clash between a temporary bird sanctuary helper and the full-time bird-lover with whom she works – along with his female boss to add to the clashes.
Tricked-out with location photography it could be reworked into a decent piece for screen. Physical textures of landscape and sea could enrich the atmosphere and lead to less reliance on the thin characterisation, which isn’t helped by the generalised performances, though Katy Slater gave Nichola a sense of the newcomer trying to fit in.
Strong scripts display difficulties in reuniting families.
TV has been the main preserve of Charlotte Essex, author of The Fading Hum which sets the return of a hedge-fund manager to the hedges and fields of the northern family farm, managed by his brother, against the potentially disastrous threat to the earth’s population of bees. Like the reunited brothers theme, such a metaphor (here drawn from bees) is well-trodden territory that still offers new dramatic landscapes. There’s a tendency to hurry things at the start, in a rhythm more suited to screen than stage stories, with the arrival of a bee expert to examine trouble out at t’hives.
But once settled in, the play acquires a steadier rhythm, and the detail – the cold night, footwear for the farm – helps build a context for the characters’ relationships. The expert herself needs help, having crashed her car, and the dangerous drunk scene is successfully negotiated, with a wine-tasting contest thrown in. Bitterness and resentment about the past emerge at the right point in the brothers’ relationship rather than seeming a playwright-timed device. Laura Keefe’s production uses the space to create interiors and the outside, making the most of the script’s growing assurance and there’s a particularly lived-in performance from Jay Taylor as the farmer-brother.
A three-hander’s more typical of 24:7 than, say Inconsistent Whisper’s mega-cast of eight. And seeing Colette Kane’s three-handed Hatch straight after Ian Moore’s play raised the question of ambition and achievement. Hatch is more consistently successful than the Russian venture, but it asks considerably less of audiences. Still, this Liverpool family story is well-constructed. A young man and woman await a third person’s arrival at their flat.
It emerges they’re brother and sister – there’s a reference to her career, picked up later when her job’s visually identified. And it’s relevant to the reason the father they’re meeting has been away for several years. Kane never over-emphasises detail, letting it emerge to enrich the fabric of the story.
There are nerves all round, well-caught by the fine cast in Nick Moss’s production, and a strong contrast between the sleek, pale youngsters and their grizzled father, as well as in his difficulty fitting with their nutritious, yoga-exercise lifestyle. Things are kept neatly near the edge, difficulties suggested in the script and implied in performances rather than explicitly spelled-out. Rather like the eggs that are waiting to hatch in the flat.
Two fine achievements: a short journey and a confined space.
The other fine three-hander in my selection was Paul Osborne’s The Bluest Blue, which makes good use of the Pioneer’s projection screen in following-up a chance park-bench meeting in York between a shy bookshop assistant and a feisty traffic warden in fancy-dress hen-party mode.
A park-bench is a convenient starting point for plays about strangers meeting, and the quest theme that emerges as Felix travels from North Yorkshire to South to find Raquel in her Barnsley home, is traditional story-structure too. But Osborne weaves individual elements into events, giving an almost-fairytale structure a concrete modern reality as Felix finds a new sense of purpose when the encounter makes him lift his head from books on the Italian Renaissance, gently encouraged by street-sweeper friend Stevie – who learns everything from doing his job – and discover the truth about Raquel.
It’s aided by a strong performance from Hannah Dee, who catches both her initial ebullience and a contrasting awareness of life’s reality. Performances are strong too in another larger-scale piece, Pawn, in which ex-cop playwright Brian Marchbank uses his professional knowledge while applying a fair amount of wit and plot-construction to a heist in a pawnbrokers, where people behind the mask and at the wrong end of a gun-barrel turn out to have scores to settle from schooldays.
Christine Clare’s the tough robber, adding an edge of menace; even very recently-trained police negotiator Cassidy loses his initial confidence when he discovers she’s in there and summoning help from her premiere crime-league family. And she comes up against Sam, a professional soldier back from the Middle East, pawning his medals and turning to drink in post-combat life. The eventual stand-off between these two, coming when a lot of energy’s been exhausted, strengthens the play’s endgame.
By contrast, Fiona Carmouch’s Mel, young and pregnant, isn’t going to let mere armed robbers stop her having her say. It’s a fine comic performance that provides an alternate tone to the tenser moments; a comedy-thriller match that’s hard to bring off.
But the main motor for the play is Annamarie Bayley’s Emma, the daughter left in charge by her pawnbroker-father. Named ‘Mouse’ at school she hides behind her large spectacles, in wonder at what’s going on, with a deep-running naivety that means what she thinks she says. But a quiet assertiveness gradually becomes clear alongside the guileless talk in Bayley’s fine performance.
In its placing of incidents and complications Pawn is beautifully constructed, while the constituent elements of shopgirl, soldier and ill-assorted robbers, where jealousy can crack the toughest hide, and where internal dynamics matter at least as much as police tactics outside, are all smartly handled.
More next year
Apologies for not being able to see Luke Walker and Sally Lawton’s Make Believe, Kim Jackson and Rebecca Mahon’s No View From the Window and Sean Gregory’s Reeling. It was a matter of time, and nothing against co-authored plays. I did see Joyce Branagh’s Sheepish and found it an unfunny, over-extended joke. Honesty, if not sympathy, makes me report a number of people laughed quite loudly some of the time.
Still, not at all bad for a week in July. And only three months before scripts will be invited for 24:7, 2011.
The Inconsistent Whisper of Insanity
by Ian Moore.
Milena: Iona Thonger.
Lady: Joan McGee.
Chicken Woman: Marie Westcott.
Ticket Collector: Deborah Bouchard.
Lieutenant Colonel: Philip Quinn.
Engine Driver: Murray Taylor.
Tram Driver: David Milne.
Doctor: Benjamin Patterson.
Director: Ian Moore.
Designer: Jeni Louise Anthony.
Lighting: Katy Long.
Costume: Siobhan Kerr.
Assistant director: Matty Bowden.
by Dick Curran.
Nichola: Katy Slater.
Ellen: Claire Dean.
Peter: Mark Frampton.
Director: Clare Howdon.
The Fading Hum
by Charlotte Essex.
Robin: Jack Monaghan.
Ted: Jay Taylor.
Melissa: Antonia Kinlay.
Director: Laura Keefe.
Fight co-ordinator: Stevie Raine.
by Colette Kane.
Director: Nick Moss.
The Bluest Blue
by Paul Osborne.
Felix: Tom Gladstone.
Raquel: Hannah Dee.
Stevie: Alan Booty.
Director: Paul Stonehouse.
Designer: Matt Edwards.
Lighting: Lucy Sutcliffe.
Sound: Jon Hughes.
by Brian Marchbank.
Bernie: Christine Clare.
Simon: Hugh Draycott.
Sam Bamford: Matthew Stead.
Emma: Annamarie Bayley.
Mel: Fiona Carmouch.
Cassidy: John McElhatton.
Director: Dennis Keighron-Foster.
by Joyce Branagh.
Cast: Christopher Chilton, Ayesha Gwilt, Simon Holland Roberts.
Director: Joyce Branagh.
Designer: Emma Cook.
Lighting/Projection: J Barrek.
Sound: Lorna Munden.
Costume: Keith Orton.