Another summer – another set of shows in Manchester’s one-act new plays celebration.
ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY?
A pre-recorded message comfortingly tells audiences at the venues for this year’s 24:7 theatre festival to stay in their seats “in the unlikely event” of a fire-alarm sounding. Trained staff will then be our salvation. Theatre, of course, thrives on irony and it turned out to be not flames but water that brought disruption to the Sunday half of this annual Manchester event’s opening ‘Big Weekend’.
Somewhere in the several floors above the Washington suite of Sachas, the city-centre hotel where about half the shows are taking place the H2O formed a wicked leak just above the lighting equipment. A 15-minute delay ricocheted through the day both there and at the other HQ, the Cooperative Society’s New Century House (which had to await late audiences travelling between the venues). Combined with a train timetable that evidently wants people tucked up quite early on a Sunday, ready for the week ahead, this meant I missed Richard Stockwell’s Future Shock.
This reduced my sightings to 7 of the 13 main productions (there are also readings, a 24-hour blank-page to performance project and associated events. It would be nice to say a new Stoppard or Churchill is leaping-out, but if so it wasn’t in the (just over) half I saw.
Predictably the most theatrically-established writer produced easily the most-impressive piece. Matthew Dunster may not say anything new about racism in I Know Where the Dead Are Buried – Anders Lustgarten’s full-length A Day at the Racists examines the in-fighting more closely – nor even about north-west attitudes behind extreme Right-wing organisation (for which see Robin Soans’ verbatim Mixed Up North.
But the sense of hurry from the start in Laura Keeffe’s production, in the cramped home shared by two computer workers, the continuing sense of tension and the disappearance of one character to be replaced by another up the hierarchy, expresses a tense, hate-filled world. Dunster adds a side-angle with the teenage daughter of one character – the only exception to an otherwise male group – bringing her own tension, with a repeated mantra of punctuated desperation.
And there’s a key contrast between the organisational style of Tony Hirst’s on-the-brink Harry (a children’s entertainer by occupation, and, in one of the play’s most overt gestures, seen spilling verbal bile while donning clownish costume) and James Quinn’s silk-suited, controlled ‘moderniser’.
Dunster and Keeffe create a taut, nerve-wracked environment, bound by the political agenda and as ruthless within as well as outside the organisation. It’s built through collateral detail – such as walking the dog – as well as through the strong performances.
A very different enclosed world comes with Eric Northey’s Telling Lives, already seen at this year’s Buxton Fringe. And it’s a different sort of play, using historical research and fictional creation to evoke the world of North Manchester’s Prestwich County Asylum around 1914.
A momentous year historically, but not for most of these people, who spend their lives within the Prestwich walls. Northey examines old and new treatment methods, and social attitudes underlying them – the Asylum’s “a convenient place for inconvenient people”. One, whose confidence initially seems a sign of mental instability, reveals he has been a dentist. At which his behaviour’s reclassified as professional assurance and he’s discharged.
The play’s structure moves from formal examinations into the private worlds of several inmates, violent or withdrawn, before returning to the treatment space, where growing piles of files suggest the caseload.
The space is converted to a small theatre-in-the-round for Sue Womersley’s production, focusing audience attention claustrophobically and obsessively inwards towards a small, dimly-lit area, where only the flash of a photographer’s bulb collecting identity photos of inmates momentarily dispels the gloom. Beside blown-up photos of several Prestwich patients of the time, the piece employs songs (music, with a folk-tinged modality by Christopher Cotton), offsetting the formal institutional world with the lyricism of mental interiors.
With tighter direction and more consistent acting this could have been stronger, but the material and the dramatic shaping making for a distinctive hour. It’s not easy to forget, for example, the arrival of an early shell-shock case from the war, the person preceding understanding of the problem. Or to be told, in a final summary, of Effie Calder, who died, still in the asylum, in 1963.
An institutional setting comes also with Rebekah Harrison’s No Place Like Home. But it’s the modern day and we’re looking at a women’s refuge. Despite the choric announcement of date and time for each scene, their brevity suggests a piece that would be happier on TV. But perhaps not.
For one thing, thanks to the fortunate casting of 13-year old actor and gymnast Trystan Chambers as Liam, dragged unwillingly into a cramped space with his mother Donna and younger sister, the boy’s resentment is repeatedly given physical expression, the body working-out stylised patterns for the anger, frustration and, in one case, attempt at affection.
Liam worships his father, until the illusion’s smashed when Mike Friend arrives, bringing the dad’s own inability to express feelings except through his fists and lays into Donna.
Chambers and young Stevie Adams as little sister Kylie create the responses of their different ages. Harrison sums up their social difficulties when they return from the first day at a new school, Liam black-eyed from a fight he started, Kylie distressed at bullying because of her make-do clothes.
There’s decent work from the older cast members, Jessica Higgins particularly showing the weariness of Donna’s struggle to survive, guard her children from her worries and provide such things as a birthday party for her daughter.
The play shows too how small things – milk, a stolen chocolate bar, can provoke major conflict where every little thing has to be fought and bought at considerable cost.
It shows Cathy’s still not come home, and other characters indicate how people cover their fears by aggression, as with Shelley, who knows she’s bottom of the list for support, or by apparent cheerfulness and disorganisation – that’s Amy, who wants to stay with friends rather than find her own life.
LAUGHTER ON THE TWELFTH FLOOR
It’s a shock to move from this to the Neil Simonised world of Joe and Shelly in The Rainbow Connection by Joanne Sherryden. Here too there are underlying anxieties; Joe recovering from an accident about which he has a guilty secret, Shelly cheerful and smiling, making her way ineptly into his life by pretending she thinks he’s just moved in and baking – indeed burning – a cake to greet him.
Yes, it’s clear this odd couple will stay caustic and grudging even as they pull inevitably closer to each other. What makes the predictable enjoyable is Sherryden’s way with dialogue. She as quite a lot of the magic Simon touch. Joe insists on lining things up neatly in an obsessive-compulsive row. “Well, there’s neat,” Shelly says, “and there’s serial-killer neat.”
There’s also the matter of other attractions in their lives, all offstage and all dealt with confidently in the writing. A slide along the surface compared with the pieces already mentioned maybe, but it takes all sorts to make a repertoire, and one joy of a theatre festival is finding all kind of qualities in diversity.
Both Anthony Crank and Danielle Henry do very well by their author in Adam Zane’s smart production, with its visual and aural references to Breakfast at Tiffany’s .
There’s another fine, if somewhat grimmer, double-act in The Shadow of Your Hand by Michael Stewart, with Rosie Fleeshman as the young woman brought home by an older executive who’s rescued her from an assault, and Steven Pinder exemplary as this high-powered penthouse-dweller whose culinary skills and laughing energy cover a desperation to cling on to someone in his city-view, utterly tidy and sterile apartment, a style-statement Bubble Chair suspended at its centre.
Power swings between the characters – like so many of the pieces here, urban life is a struggle involving often-concealed motivations – and the play, having gone where you might expect it to go, moves on to new territory. The nearness of happy and threatening is evident, only a quick hop from each other.
I nearly forgot – Sue Jenkins directed. And in such a piece the less you think of a director the better, for it shows everything’s working to tell the story and focus on the characters.
Jenkins is not only a distinguished theatre actor and well-known TV face, in the north-west particularly, but is Ms Fleeshman senior. Husband David, another northern trouper, could be seen stalking the 24:7 corridors in connection with the 24-hour project, while older daughter Emily Fleeshman is in Steve Pearce’s The Crimson Retribution.
This has a fine set-up straight from the pages of colour comics and graphic novels, as the caped crusader of the title rescues Amy (Fleeshman – both sisters get more than they reckoned from their rescuers), then takes up residence. His target is half-brother-in-law Sean (a threatening, yet comic-edged Alexander Rogerson).
A local criminal, he’s bullied brother Kyle (David Degiorgio, the whiplash image of thoughtless word and action) into his schemes. To develop this plot aspect, it’s necessary Crimson be removed for some time. It makes Paul Sockett’s masked character seem less than bright, but it emerges he hasn’t got much of a head. The plot works out neatly, but it holds up the action.
Having made a strong initial impression, the newcomer does little, though Clare Howden’s production makes him helpful around the house, becoming more the crimson cleaner at times as he hangs around not taking revenge to an extent that makes Hamlet look precipitate.
The first law of theatre is (or should be) that there are no safe bets. Brian Marchbank’s Pawn was a highlight of 24:7, 2010. His new piece about a young comedy writer and old club comedian creating a right-wing monster of a character, the eponymous Corporal Flag, is less crafted but still clever. Unfortunately, a slack production distorted by a raucous mono-toned performance disguises whether the script could do with more work or merely a different production.
Still, more hits than not, and already it’s only a few months till the call goes out for next year’s scripts.
Performance details: 247theatrefestival.co.uk