There are three separate theatre festivals taking place in Manchester this July. The International Festival presents large-scale national and international commissions while the Greater Manchester Fringe brings a month’s worth of stand-up, music and literary events to the city’s smaller venues. The 24:7 Festival, the city’s oldest, having been around for ten years, is a week-long festival which champions new writing, offering of a dozen or so world premieres, predominantly by companies based in the North West, in venues dotted around the Northern Quarter.
It promotes, in its own words, a low-cost, low-risk showcase of emerging theatre-making, and does so admirably, even if the quality of the work fluctuates and the festival’s visibility is arguably limited even within the city itself. The festival’s appeal to performers is evident: removed from the steep costs, murderous competition and abundance of stand-up comedy which characterises the Edinburgh Fringe, 24:7 is perhaps closer to European equivalents like the Prague and Amsterdam fringes, even if the constraints on space and the emphasis on new writing make 24:7 less accommodating to design, devising and experimental theatre than the latter. Most of the shows attended played to near-sell-out houses, and the festival’s careful curating guarantees a standard of quality – or at least a promise of potential – which makes it both a safe bet for audiences and a festival that deserves to grow in size and exposure.
This year’s 24:7 Festival has its fair share of plays dealing in urban anguish, serving up little slices of troubled life, where the kitchen-sink has been replaced by the Northern council flat. Vexation Productions’ Temper presents a young art school graduate, down on his luck and stifled into a state of inaction as he evaluates his post-university life choices. Stuck in a leaking Oldham council flat between the muffled cries of his upstairs neighbour and the cheeky inquisitiveness of the tenant downstairs, played by a mercurial and quick-witted Taran Knight, Andrew Madden’s Calum seeks escape in the virtual reality of computer games. But arguing the case for a cowardly exit of a world which “changes from a place that excites you to a place that frightens you” does not go down well with his partner, single mother Debs, played with a striking balance between vulnerability and feistiness by Jane Leadbetter. Richard O’Neill’s play displays some finely observed, well-structured dialogue, but takes a disappointingly long time for exposition, resulting in a near-endless string of set-ups which ultimately neither progresses far nor pays off satisfactorily.
Laura-Kate Barrow’s Bump, performed at Manchester’s most charming fringe venue the Three Minute Theatre, shows a chance re-acquaintance between two former classmates, who, ten years down the line, are similarly made to re-evaluate the wasted potential of their lives. Set in a church which evokes surprise confessions, Thomas Masson, as Matt, portrays a returned war veteran visibly affected by his experiences with attractive physical detail. Sarah Keating gives a thoughtful rendering of a self-confessed “not very pleasant child”-turned-university drop-out. Barrow’s beautifully crafted play, disclosing revelations at just the right pace and filled with sparkling, witty dialogue makes her undoubtedly a writer to watch.
Dapper Productions likewise bring a playwright of outstanding potential to the 24:7 Festival. Louise Monaghan’s My Space echoes with the writing of David Eldridge and Robert Holman, authors amongst whom she’ll undoubtedly be ranked in the not too distant future. Packed with beautifully rounded characters, inventive situations and sharp comedy, the play focuses on a tight clique of teenagers facing the choice between an ASBO or doing community service in the garden of local grumpy old man Mad Harry – a formidable performance by Kenneth Alan Taylor. Expounding conflicts of generation, of London vs. the regions, and of youthful open-mindedness against ingrained prejudice, My Space is a thought-provoking piece of work, imaginatively directed by Louise Hill even if the advertised parkour elements of the production are minimal, and the poor sightlines of the venue are not always tackled.
2022NQ’s basement space also hosts Faro Production’s The Young, billed as the festival’s first and only devised production, although it comes across as no less tightly scripted than its competitors. As the audience enter, loud club tunes play and the ensemble cast of six are engaged in energetic dancing, flirting and drinking. It soon becomes clear they are all on a new drug which halts the ageing process, but that is as about as far as the narrative clarity of Abi Hynes’ script goes. A rapid succession of scenes shows the six dealing with the consequences of an interrupted ageing process and the alleged disastrous withdrawal symptoms that kick in when they stop taking their pills, as one of them starts “ghosting” or passing out from its side effects. But whether they find themselves dwelling in this secluded cellar through coercion or free will becomes muddled as the piece tries to pack too much highly-strung drama into limited time and construct is favoured over conflict. The skilled ensemble is capably directed by Rachel Fernandez-Arias, making excellent use of the space, although some of the choreographed sequences come across as somewhat under-confident. LisaMarie Hoctor and Ben Jewell stand out in particular, as does the gorgeously evocative soundscape composed by The Explorer’s Collective.
Alice Brockway writes and plays the lead in Eve Was Framed’s production of Blunted. Once an idealistic teacher, her character Tess has become a housebound recluse navigating the ruins of her life after a traumatic experience involving the very children she had devoted her life to support. An attempt at intervention is undertaken by her friends, daytime-drinking artist Evie, and her down-toearth partner Jay, with mixed results. Brockway’s melodramatic play leaves little room for audience imagination, and Helen Parry’s direction allows the cast to lace their lines with too much selfironizing to deliver the punch the drama could contain. Effective performances by John Mulleady and Andrew Fillis, and an admirable attempt at tackling a topic of great relevance, ultimately don’t weigh up to the production’s incessant switches from hysteria to cynicism, which make it difficult to generate any real connection or sympathy.
Not all of the festival’s plays tackle the here-and-now. Near Run Thing’s Night on the Field of Waterloo and Micheál Jacob’s Daylight Robbery fictionalize 19th century worlds of love and war, and crime and punishment respectively. The former ventures into the territory of Barker and Brecht with Thomas Bloor’s inspired tale of two widows scurrying the battlefield of Waterloo, searching for whatever might be left of their husbands. Where one has a Mother Courage attitude, enjoying the spoils of war, the other is a romantic unprepared for the lean times ahead. This play about fear, death and survival cleverly thematizes war profiteering and the questionable commodification of battlefield tourism, but ultimately the meandering narrative, coupled with Barry Evans’ overexplanatory direction and an insistence on scene changes that don’t actually change the scene give the production all the subtlety of a Napoleonic cannonball to the head.
Daylight Robbery similarly suffers from a convoluted narrative and weak directorial choices. We’re in 1880’s Didsbury, and great northern sleuth Jerome Caminada is tasked with solving the murder of a man fished out of the Medlock, as well as the disappearance of some jewellery, whilst under pressure from an unsympathetic supervisor, sensation-hungry press and a set of disobedient dames who feel the first stirrings of women’s emancipation. This is a time where the Conservatives claim to be the party of a united nation, while the city’s underclasses struggle in abject poverty. The evidently well-researched script moves swiftly through a series of short scenes, coming across more as a television detective series than a piece of theatre, and swiftly loses its audience in its maze-like narrative. The ensemble cast perform with flair to evoke a colourful palette of Dickensian characters, but the play’s verbose lines are given a wobbly delivery more than once, and minimal costume changes and inconsistent staging conventions (props alter between real and mimed with confusing frequency) make the real detective work in this play the task of figuring out just what exactly is going on.
Poppabear’s No Soft Option also taps into the world of northern criminals, in this case a lively pack of misfits, self-described as “a modern-day chain gang” convicted to a community service sentence of decorating a local youth centre. Overseen by Katie McArdle’s inexperienced probation officer Emma, the four offenders range from street-wise youths Abby and Chazz (two stand-out performances from Kimberly Hart-Simpson and Samuel Thompson) to Jane Allighan’s neurotic Karen and Leo Atkin’s cranky ex-army officer Malcolm. Brian Marchbank’s script tackles the de-personalization of a criminal justice system affected by creeping privatization and budget cuts with sharp wit and a commendable humanity. As the four discover they have more in common than they thought, so do we learn their hearts are firmly in the right place. A funny, insightful and smoothly directed production.
The real gems of this year’s festival are Working Progress’s Away From Home, and Colour The Clouds’s Billy, the Monster and ME! The former is a starkly original, energetic and touching oneman show about the conflicting passions of a homosexual male escort and football lover, and his affair with a top Premiership player. Performed with astonishing physical and vocal skill by Rob Ward and masterfully directed by Martin Jameson, Away From Home serves up a string of bittersweet encounters which shed an uncomfortable yet much-needed light on the fraught relationship between football culture and homosexuality.
Billy, the Monster and ME! is 24:7 Festival’s only show for young audiences. After an entertaining pre-show audience warm-up, “brave Sir Billy” takes us into his vivid imagination about being a knight, building a castle and slaying monsters. Billy wants to play, but his multi-tasking mother and hard-working father don’t have time for him, his teenage sister is too annoying, and his grandfather is too busy napping. Maybe the audience can help. There is some splendid physical comedy and an infectious playfulness in this marvelously inventive production, with a first-rate performance by Nathan Morris who intuitively understands how to engage and entertain audiences both young and old. This is a heart-warming and excellently performed show about fighting monsters and irritating siblings alike, about trying again if at first you don’t succeed and about the joys of unbridled fantasy. It is a laudable choice of the 24:7 Festival to programme high-quality theatre for young audiences such as this, and hopefully this will be a feature of future festivals.
The 24:7 Festival takes place at various venues around Manchester from 19th-26th July 2013.