24:7 Theatre Festival To 27 July 2012.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 21-22 July.
A lift to summer theatre in the north-west.
In a scene from one of the plays, set in the early 1640s, from this year’s organically grown crop of new work in the city’s annual 24:7 Theatre Festival, an officer in the king’s army said he could get no closer to central Manchester’s Deansgate than the southern suburb of Levenshulme, for lack of the password to give the parliamentary soldiers guarding the town.
I know something of how he felt. In my case it was a body hit by a train in Levenshulme which closed all lines through the area into Piccadilly and meant I missed Jo Kirtley Pritchard’s Loaded. Apart from a few shouted lines and a gun-shot seeping through during the performance of the Civil War play, I managed neither to hear or see it, and can only say reports were positive, going on positively enthusiastic.
So my odyssey through what would now be seven out of ten productions began with Francesca Waite’s skilful slice of life Stars Are Fire. The title points ot the most whimsical thing in the piece, used as a means of reconciliation between teenage Carly, brought up in Manchester, and her dad Neil.
On the death of Carly’s mum, Neil takes his daughter back to his homeland in Northumberland. There’s one gain for Carly; she’s kept on supporting Newcastle United and now she can go to games and not be their only fan in the crowd. Otherwise, it’s disrupted her from friends and familiar life just as she’s finding her way towards adult independence. Emma Clarke catches Carly’s sulkiness and truculence, while Steven Hillman traces the progress – though he hardly makes any – of a middle-aged father trying to cope with a hormonal teenage daughter.
A cheery manner and hope of infecting Carly with it, plus the odd sandwich, are clearly doomed to failure, along with the chance she might be slightly cooperative in moving their belongings in. Once he’s smashed the TV, given her lack of help, this changes to equally futile anger. Young relative Lou calls by, a quietly contained Ritchie Gibson, but someone not wanting to become closely involved.
Waite’s spare script gives space to the actors to create their characters’ emotional shifts, till the resolution – which requires a move from home to beach, and allows Carly to resolve inner turmoil with the image of her dead mother as a star. It would be easy to call this a dramatic copout, were it not part of Carly’s attempt to come to terms with the present.
It could hardly contrast more with Anthony Morgan’s The Legend of the Ghost Shark, which tries to weld two differing genres – farce and fantasy. As one depends on iron logic and the other allows potentially anything to happen, it’s a tough trick but Morgan devises neat moments along the way – and keeps up an admirable pace in his script, as does Charlie Mortimer’s production.
At the centre is that most tragic of tormented figures, the writer who has to fulfil two contrasting commissions on the same day. Magazine article or fictional adventure? Figures, fantasy or factual, keep entering (Jason’s demands they knock at the door plays neatly on the fantasy elements) as the action zooms along. There’s a smiley-threatening shaman, a couple of detectives, one of them gleefully insistent he’s the bad cop who manipulates a table which I hope was meant to fall apart (if not, keep it in). And, alongside the sensible, soberly dressed women in Jason’s life, there’s his female fantasy figure, apparently visible to at least some others (writers’ fantasies can be so transparent to those living with them), a glossily brassy callgirl type who feeds him such inspiration as he has time for.
WHERE IT’S AT.
Those take place at New Century House, the Cooperative’s Mancunian centre. Festival banners disguise that they’re using the back-door – aptly so, the more imposing frontage would be out of scale with a festival of new work, having 60 minutes as its utter upper limit. Given the often-tight scheduling, never has theatre known such concentrated starting on time. Just a couple of minutes from Shudehill, a major city centre tram interchange, Mayes Street (M60 4ES) is a quiet place amid some major points of activity. The two fit-up theatre spaces, named the Pioneer after the Co-op’s Rochdale founders, and the Elphick after the late Michael Elphick, an actor who supported 24:7 extensively, are both set out as wide thrust stages this year, an improvement on the multi-row end-stagings of recent seasons.
And there’s a satellite venue, the Three Minute Theatre in Afflecks Arcade, just off Piccadilly Gardens, in Oldham Street (M1 1JG). This is the chamber venue, its intimacy apt for Michael Crowley’s The Cell. A hostage drama set in a Merseyside prison cell, the involvement of prison office Scully and prisoner Kelly is not the usual. Scully, sitting on the floor, and Kelly standing at the start, seem hostage and hostage-taker, but there’s a different explanation, and Crowley (who also plays the lax, and confused, officer trying to do the negotiating without involving the prison authorities) develops a network of guilt, in which Kelly, between outbursts of anger at Scully, uses the prisoners’ communications network to get messages around and out of the jail – something made easy by the BlackBerrys the inmates all seem to have.
It’s a neat theatrical anecdote, sharply played by Paul Regan and David Barlow, that raises questions of guilt and responsibility, and the way a job and pension involve responsibilities from which the prisoner is free. But it’s in another Three Minute piece, Dave Windass’s Fitrestarter there’s the subtlest dramatic strategy, possibly reflecting the writer’s experience with full-length scripts produced by Hull Truck Theatre. Firestarter comes from Ensemble 52, who field a fine threesome of a cast.
It starts with a monologue by Peter, first evidenced behind a table, holding-up a piece of paper saying ‘Part I’, which he then crinkles in his hand as if it were being eaten by flames. For Peter, arson is a way of revenge, of being noticed in a world ready to ignore someone otherwise awkward and slow in communication. It’s neatly written, if hardly astounding in its analysis, though scrupulously performed by Andy Wilson, who catches diffidence and enthusiasm combined in the secret power of burning people and their homes.
Windass then moves to scenes involving, presumably, Peter’s parents in the days when he was a child. Raunchily semi-naked Annie (Zoe Matthews) gives her man Tone everything he wants to hear and quite a lot of what he wants to see from her, with brazen vulgarity. Clear boss in the relationship is Richard Vergette’s Tone, probably out of jail and mixing aggressive moments with brooding quiet, yet always in control. It’s this threat in a powerful personality that makes Annie try ever-harder to please him in (semi) dress and vocal flattery. Peter, through all this, sits silent behind, ignored, his head in a sack – the flaming attention-seeker given no care or consideration. A powerful statement.
And a contrast to Hekate Papadaki’s The Interpreter, Home, back at New Century House. Hevi’s been 19 years in an English institution following a calamity in her life. Cultural errors, including providing a translator with the wrong language, mean she’s communicated with no-one. Now Nalin tries to break through the near-silent grief, starting with the proper pronunciation of a name that’s been accented to rhyme with ‘heavy’, and searching out Hevi’s son, all against the pressures of institutional regulations and targeted funding with is demands for quick results. As fiction it would be loaded, and neither script nor production goes much beyond the functional. However, as the telling of an essentially true history it carries its own force.
As does Eric Northey’s Transit of Venus, presented by Cul-de-Sac Theatre. Last year’s 24:7 included Northey’s account of lives in a north Manchester asylum during the First World War. This year he’s gone back to the English Civil War in the Manchester area, combining a love interest based in shared intellectual excitement, the contrast of scientific and religious enthusiasms and the impact of political forces as King and Parliament clash in the north-west. Much of the play’s set in the Crabtree home, where William combines his astronomical interest with being a moderating voice in attacks on witches, while his daughter Jenny has the freedom to help her father with his telescopic observations of the heavenly phenomenon in the title.
Acting is variable, though Lucy Ward expresses the happy freedom of spirit that runs into the blast of political forces. And Northey’s script seems cramped by the Festival’s hour-long limit. Of the seven pieces I saw, this is the one most clearly asking to be taken up and developed further.
Whereas My Arms by James Leach is a time-reversed account of a tense relationship, uncoiling to show the efforts made by Colin, coming from prison, to control his anger and pick up the pieces of his relationship with Helen as she tries to move on in her life by moving elsewhere. Josh Moran and Roberta Kerr delineate every shift in the tensions that seem unavoidable as they meet-up. Even the fish and chips he’s brought, with her lack of appetite, become a source of tension.
Adam Quayle’s Talking Props production paces all this superbly, with what’s implied being as powerful as anything said. Leach holds-out little hope for the midlife characters but it’s an assured story which is absolutely right as it is, one of several plays in a strong season that are well worth future production.
24:7, 2012 also included All the Bens by Ian Townsend and Goldfish by Lisa Whiteside, rehearsed readings, workshops, plus other events.
STARS ARE FIRE by Francesca White.
Carly: Emma Clarke.
Lou: Richie Gibson.
Neil: Steven Hillman.
Director: Liz Postlethwaite.
Music: Nick Lynn.
Dramaturgs: Michael Jacob, Sarah McDonald Hughes.
Assistant director: Jyothi Kuna.
THE LEGEND OF THE GHOST SHARK by Anthony Morgan.
Jason: Christopher Brett.
Wendy: Iona Thonger.
Catherine: Victoria Brazier.
Jacqueline: Alison Darling.
Lucien: James Nickerson.
Conway: Tony de Angekis.
Morello: James Kerr.
Director: Charlie Mortimer.
Sound/Film: Annie Wallace.
Assistant director: Justyna Ostrowska.
THE CELL by Michael Crowley.
(Bad Ideas Theatre).
Scully: Paul Regan.
Mr Lavery: Michael Crowley.
Director: Ron Meadows.
Sound: Peter Michelson.
Fight director: Emma Heron.
FIRESTARTER by Dave Windass.
Annie: Zoe Matthews.
Tone: Richard Vergette.
Peter: Andy Wilson.
Director: Andrew Pearson.
THE INTERPRETETR, HOME by Hekate Papadaki.
(House of Orphans).
Hevi/Café Woman: Hilly Barber.
Dr Parry: Alice Brockway.
Diyar/Amanj: Mete Dursun.
Nalin: Jade Greyul.
Nurse Begg: Laura Lindsay.
Tracey: Steph Reynolds.
Director: Lucy Allan.
Sound: Owen Rafferty.
Assistant director: Adam Chapter.
THE TRANSIT OF VENUS by Eric Northey.
(Cul de Sac Theatre).
Colonel Johannes Rosworm/Cavalier Soldier: Ben Rigby.
Jenny Crabtree: Lucy Ward.
Jeremiah Horrocks: Nathan Morris.
William Crabtree: John McElhatton.
Horrocks’ Mother: Sarah Jane Lee.
Cavalier Officer/Roundhead Soldier: Wesley Pearce.
Director: Alyx Tole.
Music: Christopher Cotton.
MY ARMS by James Leach.
(Talking Props Theatre/Box of Tricks).
Colin: Josh Moran.
Helen: Roberta Kerr.
Director: Adam Quayle.
Designer: Rachel Wingate.
Sound: Chris James.
Video: George Haydock.
Assistant director: Amy O’Toole.