THEATRE GOES 24:7 IN MANCHESTER
24:7 Theatre Festival, various venues in Manchester 19-26 July 2013.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 23-24 July.
It hasn’t the celebrity or glamour of the Manchester International Festival, but the city’s 24:7 Theatre Festival turns up every year and, while not confined to plays from the North West, has always a firm local accent.
The Festival format seems simple. As a result of months of sifting and selection, ten (or slightly more) scripts are chosen for performance over a week (or slightly more) in late July. Each play is new and, once selected, each playwright is matched with a director and they’re left to cast and rehearse a piece lasting an hour (or a bit less).
Most shows, thanks to the Cooperative Society, continue to be at their HQ – reached by a back entrance in Mayes Street, in a seemingly secluded urban area within a minute or two’s walk of major public transport and parking facilities.
FOR FAMILIES TOO
Here, two fit-up stages, the Pioneer (after Co-op founders the Rochdale Pioneers) and the Elphick (in memory of supportive actor Michael Elphick) present three performances nightly at 6pm, 7.30pm and 9pm, plus a lunchtime (12.30pm) show, and weekend matinees, though the Elphick this year’s given over to a daily 2pm ‘family-friendly’ piece Billy, The Monster and Me!.
This is a good place to start, as Catherine Manford and Sarah Molyneux have come-up with a splendidly enjoyably piece about young Billy, who plays at being a knight, but despite all the charging about on a mock-steed with a tin-tray as breastplate, is clearly just a lonely lad. Mum’s always busy on the ’phone, dad with his DIY and grandad dozing in his favourite chair. Only pesky sister Olivia pays him any attention, and he’d rather she didn’t.
It’s a lifestyle recipe for boredom and frustration, alongside dispirited Billy being unable to complete the panels which would make the wall-high picture of his imagined palace.
No reason for the audience to grow bored though, with plenty of comic routines, including some ingenious comic juggling. Then as the story develops, there’s increasing depth.
Thanks to a prologue, the audience is ready to help out as ‘Team Billy’ when a monster appears and starts eating the family. With his whole life disappearing in front of him, and us, in shadow-play, and when, also in front of us, the monster ingeniously takes menacing shape with chair, sheet and lights, Billy has to confront something fearful on his own – at least, on his own but for Team Billy.
All comes out right in the end, in a piece that’s theatrically inventive, dramatically coherent, visually entertaining and encourages both independence and solidarity in facing life’s little, or bigger, problems.
I only hope it receives its intended audience – earlyish in the week there was a preponderance of theatre-wise adults whose keen responses tended to overshadow the minority of genuine children present. But this is a piece that should be taken-up and toured widely.
For the rest, the theme tying the selection of shows I chanced upon is crime. Alice Brockway acts in her Blunted, as Tess, whose partner has been murdered in the street by a youth. Her withdrawal is partly because, as she finally explains, she feels part-responsible for the death.
An alcoholic friend tries to cheer her up with self-obsessed twittering which would be more likely to induce suicide or homicide, while it’s a guard in the vaguely defined security organisations to which the dead man belonged, to whom Tess gradually responds.
The whole business could do with less emotional indulgence and a sharper production. While the situation unfolds skilfully enough, the characters and their behaviour is predictable and unvaried.
Over at the enterprising (and year-round) Three Minute Theatre, in Oldham Street, just north of Piccadilly Gardens, Richard O’Neill’s Temper is the reverse. There’s little story, but each character suggests more than they tell, and has an immediacy that holds attention.
Stuck on a high floor of an Oldham council block, Calum is down to black tea because he hasn’t been out for the milk. Somehow he has struck-up a relationship with Debs, who comes ready for a happy hour in bed, unaware he’s just left a message on her mobile trying to break things off – a matter of his fear rather than anything about her.
Meanwhile, a cheery young neighbour calls, talking about fixing the perennial damp problems, but Calum can only see him as a threat, an aural voyeur through the walls, while other noisy neighbours make him yet more nervous. Not a lot goes on, but the portrait of that old fiend city anonymity manages to seem newly localised and freshly-considered in Chris Bridgman’s well-cast production.
Also in Oldham Street, 24:7 veteran Brain Marchbanks provides No Soft Option. Two years ago his Pawn made exciting and comic viewing out of a daylight raid on a pawnbrokers. In this look at a day in the life of a community payback scheme (or of the half who turn up), Marchbanks manages to hold interest in a crime-related scene where there’s no action.
Steadily, concealing his steps carefully – which means moving things forward at moments which fit the psychological state of the characters rather than the playwright’s convenience – and without sentimentality, Marchbanks develops his characters from their predictable opening defensiveness and status-grabbing, to a tentative agreement that will improve the decorating job they’re assigned while giving them a sense of involvement in what they’re doing.
The types are familiar as they are realistic – the relentless objector to everything, the girl who will let nothing separate her from her composure or chewing-gum. And the surprise character, Malcolm; an older man who hates criminals and would normally be heard saying so down at the golf-club but has found himself with the longest sentence of all. (Yes, we want to know why, and yes, Marchbanks allows the revelation at an apt moment, when Malcolm might have felt he could trust the information to the others).
His initiative and resolve eventually enthuse the group. It means their supervisor, young Emma, has little to do, likeher supervisor, on-call back at the office, but with little point much of the time on stage. If Marchbanks could find reasons to remove Emma from the scene from time to time and restage the calls to the office, there could be even more focus on the good work of Leo Atkin, Samuel Thompson’s angry young Chazz, Kimberly Hart-Simpson as the cheerfully self-possessed Abby and Jane Allighan as the tough, surprisingly positive-minded Karen.
BACK TO THE PAST
It’s back to 19th-century criminal files for Daylight Robbery. Micheál Jacob tells a tale of Jerome Caminada, an Irish-Italian Mancunian who became the city’s first Superintendent of CID. Caminada showed a Sherlock Holmes-like ability to make deductions from evidence, as Jacob economically instances near the opening. And he reflects something of Kate Summerscale’s rediscovered Victorian detective Jack Whicher, in the pressure on him to solve crimes in time to placate press and public opinion.
The crimes involve a body found in the river Medlock and a series of robberies in the south Manchester area of Didsbury. There turns out to be a connection, established as Caminada, showing his Sherlockian skill in disguise, investigates low taverns and makes potentially complicating female acquaintances. Kerry Lorenza-Bennett contrasts reputable and disreputable Victorian womanhood, while Francesca Waite offers some varied characters, incorporating simplicity and duplicity.
Much of the male acting has to be endured rather than enjoyed, though Marcus McMillan has an apt stolidity as Caminada. The story, proceeding in short scenes, needs more support from acting and production than 24:7 conditions allow. But there’s no reason Caminada couldn’t follow Holmes and Whicher onto the screen, where plentiful atmospherics and scene-setting would work a treat.
For drama that grips on stage, the place to be is at Night on the Field of Waterloo. Thomas Bloor follows two women, Tosh and Nel, as they search for their men, and make a serious error in trying to reunite an Englishwoman about to give birth to a Frenchman’s baby with her angry, violent brother.
There are moments of action, but author Thomas Bloor’s true skill is in moving the situation forward in ways that bring the two women into ever-clearer focus. The writing is clear, yet has the strength to hold the attention on stage. A scene between one woman and the friend she meets dying on the field is especially strong, as he attempts to keep her by him for comfort as she is torn between helping him and searching the field.
It’s beautifully played too in Barry Evans’ well-paced production, which through strong acting, occasional sounds-off and control of tone creates the tension of the post-battle scene. Louise Bloor convinces with the cautious, nervous Tosh while Holly Fishman Crook has a thoughtful determination in a fine portrayal of the more adventurous Nel. Ordinary lives are stretched while the rain falls and history changes. It’s a strong piece that calls out for more performances than the Festival can offer.
But 24:7 has done its work in bringing these various piece to light, along with those I couldn’t see – Rob Ward and Martin Jameson’s highly-regarded solo show Away from Home, Bump by Laura-Kate Barrow, My Space from Louise Monaghan, and Abi Hynes’ The Young.
A new development, two performances of a site-specific piece at Manchester Central Fire Station, was cancelled late in preparation, when a Manchester fireman died in horrific circumstances a week before the planned opening. The blackened, window-shattered building close to (but unconnected with) Three Minute Theatre starkly witnesses fire’s severity.
This sad context beside, 24:7 has ensured again that July doesn’t bring the theatrical doldrums for Manchester, with playreadings, discussions and a quiz, the whole lot spread over five venues. And, with August coming, it’ll soon be time to start inviting script for the 2014 season. More info on this will turn up at 247theatrefestival.co.uk