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Aug 21st

Bolton Octagon announces an exciting season of special events

By Caroline May

Bolton Octagon's studio theatre is hosting a wide range of special events, one-off performances and visiting productions for Autumn 09.

"Investigate" days will explore the shows in the main house: Who Needs Writers? (12 September), an investigation in verbatim theatre with a panellists including Max Stafford-Clark, Robin Soans, David Thacker, Stephanie Street and Alecky Blythe;

Investigating Three of the Best 24:7 (19 September), analysings selected 24:7 plays with the writers, directors and casts; All My Sons (14 October), an investigation into Arthur Miller's classic play; Christopher Bigsby on Arthur Miller (17 October), telling the compelling story of the life of one of the 20th Century's greatest playwrights; Who Needs Translators? (14 November), David Thacker, Erik Skuggevik, actors from the Ghosts company, Brid Andrews of the University of Bolton and Professor Richard Wilson investigate the challenges and opportunities of translating classic and contemporary plays; and the season concludes with Who Needs Socialism? (19 December), which examines The Enemies Within by Ron Rose, a play about the 1984/5 Miners' Strike.

Touring productions include Corin Redgrave in De Profundis (23-24 September) and Trumbo (6 November), and Oxfordshire Theatre Company's Dancing in My Dreams by Neil Duffield (12-17 October).

 In-house studio shows include the Octagon's new Artistic Director David Thacker reviving his 1985 Young Vic production of The Enemies Within (14-19 December).

There will also be lunchtime poetry readings, workshops for writers, actors and directors, David Thacker in conversation with Sue Johnston, visiting children's shows, and many other events.

 For the full line-up, further details, dates and prices go to the Octagon's "What's On" page and click on the "Special Events" tab.

Aug 19th

Angels with Manky Faces at Library Theatre, Manchester

By Caroline May

Think of Manchester, and think of a great industrial city famed for its world-class football, cutting-edge music scene and all manner of scientific innovations; however you might equally recall its post-industrial reputation for the kind of poverty and social deprivation that invariably foster youth crime and organised violence.

 Andrew Davies’s sensational book The Gangs of Manchester, which received glowing reviews in the national press last winter, is an investigation into Manchester’s notorious gang-culture.  However instead of being set in contemporary Hulme and Moss Side it features their 1890s equivalents: Ancoats, Angel Meadow, Harpurhey and a maze of inner-city neighbourhoods where local tribes of fashion-conscious hooligans staged prearranged fights (“scuttling”) armed with heavily buckled belts, knives, and even knitting needles.

 Rob Lees and Jill Hughes of MaD Theatre Company have taken this forgotten history and turned it into an astonishing theatrical extravaganza involving a huge cast of talented community actors, with cameos from some of Manchester’s most recognisable faces and exclusive new recordings by veterans of the Madchester music scene.

 The dysfunctional McGregor and Johnson clans, with their extensive broods of battling sons and loose-moralled daughters, seem to have sprung from a Victorian episode of Shameless.  Theirs is a life of non-stop drinking, gambling, whoring and fighting, and most of their leisure-time revolves around the pub-cum-knocking-shop run by the slatternly Flanagan family.

 There are 21 actors and every beautifully realised character is brought to life with Dickensian relish; The Library Theatre stage hasn’t thronged with such a vibrant and lively company since Out of Joint played The Convict’s Opera in February.  Inevitably though the smaller members of the cast pretty much steal the show: Alana Thornton as Mary-Ann McGregor and Lauren Lennon as Mary-Ellen Johnson are an unforgettable double-act, and Charlie Nield brings the house down as the boy with the unreliable sphincter. 

 Director Rob Lees pulls off the difficult trick of making video an integral part of the production, and Paul Cliff’s black-and-white re-enactments of the scuttling are stylised and stark.  We’re also treated to clips of local talent like Terry Christian, John Henshaw, Smug Roberts and Graeme Hawley, to say nothing of the specially recorded soundtrack from Mike Joyce of The Smiths and Clint Boon of the Inspiral Carpets, together with current favourites Twisted Wheel, The Naughtys and Bye Bye Johnny.

 Parallels with modern-day gang culture are highlighted by accessorising the scuttlers’ outfits with twenty-first-century Burberry checks, and the decision to put scally-speak in the characters’ mouths gives the dialogue a freshness and immediacy which prevents the whole experience from seeming like a respectful costume drama or a polite example of theatre-in-education.

 This is a first rate example of community theatre - little wonder that this week’s extended run has sold out.  Keep an eye on MaD Company’s website for the surely inevitable revival of this superb production.


Angels with Manky Faces is on until Saturday 22 August 2009

Prices: £10 (£9.50)

Eves @ Tues-Thurs @ 7.30; Fri & Sat @ 8pm

Matinee Sat @ 3pm

Box Office: 0161 236 7110



Jul 26th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - Friday

By Caroline May

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester

Friday 24 July 2009


As We Forgive Them - Pure/Blue


Writer/performer Richard Vergette returns to 24:7 after his acclaimed one-man show An Englishman’s Home in 2007.  This year he is joined by powerful young actor Joe Sims in an intense three-act drama which is perfectly suited to the claustrophobic space in Blue.


Congressman John Daniels (Richard Vergette) is paying a personal visit to the high-security wing of the state penitentiary, where Lee Fenton (Joe Sims) is serving life for the murder of the congressman’s daughter. 


Daniels is the epitome of the bleeding heart liberal, still firmly opposed to the death penalty in spite of his own tragic loss, and apparently on an evangelical mission to save Fenton’s soul.  Initially, however, there seems to be no possibility of communication between the two: the prisoner, slumped in his chair and unable to concentrate, merely grunts profanities; while Daniels is verbose to the n-th degree, apparently in love with the sound of his own voice.


The skill of the writing manages to make something out of this seemingly intractable situation, while Andrew Pearson’s excellent direction creates moments of edge-of-the-seat tension.


As we come to care about Fenton’s reform the play springs a nifty surprise.  As We Forgive Them is an involving and sometimes moving story which is enhanced by a pair of marvellous performances. has all the show information including video trailers


Tickets: £8/£6 (conc): book online from the 247 website or ring 0870 428 0785 (or turn up at the venues)


Venues: Pure at the Printworks, off Withy Grove/Corporation Street; New Century House, Corporation Street (200 metres from The Printworks)

Both venues are a stone’s throw from Manchester Victoria Station

Jul 22nd

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - Tuesday

By Caroline May

Freshers - New Century 1

Blinded by the Light - Pure/Funktion

Dancing to the Sound of Crunch of Snails - Pure/Funktion


Only into Day 2 of the 24:7 Theatre Festival, and the craik is great.  The Hub at New Century House is the perfect place to meet up for pre- and post-show drinks, and tomorrow (Wednesday) there’s a free short film night from 10pm. 


This evening I kicked off at New Century 1 with Freshers by Steve Pearce, author of 2007’s popular Rose Cottage.  The premise promises comedy mayhem: Scarlett arrives in halls on her first day at university, only to find that her dad Miles has also enrolled as a student and is living on the floor below - with hilarious consequences! (I assumed).  In fact my expectations were thoroughly subverted because the encounters between dad and daughter are dark and emotionally charged due to heavy family stuff from a few years before.  The funny, sexy, studenty bits are flashbacks to the same room 20 years earlier, when earnest ecologist Hephzibah unwittingly bursts in on the sleeping Miles. 


Steve Pearce has created a brilliant role in Hephzibah, a very funny and extremely confident young woman who is superbly played by Christine Clare.  And while Miles may be slobbish, irresponsible and emotionally immature, Richard Hand manages to make him utterly charming and lovable.  They spark off each other like a contemporary Beatrice and Benedick - I definitely want to see these two actors working together again.


Over at Pure/Funktion the seating plan which served perfectly well for Working Title had been rotated by 90o, to the detriment of both sound and lighting.  Fortunately Blinded by the Light by Karl Voden is such a strong piece that it manages to survive these hostile conditions.  This is a character-led drama which focuses on three press photographers-cum-paparazzi who are camped outside the home of a disgraced celebrity, hoping to capture the first pictures of him following his downfall.  Weasely Ray (Reg Edwards) is on the staff of an unsavoury tabloid, while Gobbi (Tom Tunstall) has set up his own agency and drives around in a Jag.  Then brash young freelance Mitch (Adam Diggle), son of an old pal, joins them for the stake-out, and while they’re waiting and reminiscing and philosophising their careers gradually come into conflict with their private lives. 


This is one of the strongest scripts I’ve seen this year: the characterisations are spot on, the dialogue rings true, the story unfolds in a very satisfying way, and on top of that the three main actors are absolutely excellent.  Blinded by the Light has been produced by Liverpool-based LAX Theatre Company, which on the evidence of this show is a seriously talented outfit.


When I walked into Joe Graham’s Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails I was delighted to see that Pure/Funktion had been reconfigured yet again, this time into a three-sided thrust-type staging - definitely the most audience-friendly set-up I’ve seen this year.  However, my next thought was: they’re going to have to find more chairs by the weekend if it’s already full on a Tuesday night. 


Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails is about one of those fraught family Christmases that make atheism such an appealing lifestyle choice.  Divorced father Howard (Michael Starke) is trying to rebuild long-burnt bridges with his adult daughters Sara (Gemma Wardle) and Katie (Catherine Kinsella), while son-in-law Sam (Andrew Grose) thinks that everything can be solved by sitting around the table and playing board games.  The highlight of this show is the chaotic game of Monopoly, skilfully choreographed by director Joyce Branagh, where Sam attempts to make them all play nicely together while the other three have an enormous row without saying anything to the purpose.


Although I had been expecting more of an out-and-out comedy rather than a family drama, this is the kind of feelgood show which has you coming out with a soppy smile all over your face, and the acting is top notch. has all the show information including video trailers


Tickets: £8/£6 (conc): book online from the 247 website or ring 0870 428 0785 (or turn up at the venues)


Venues: Pure at the Printworks, off Withy Grove/Corporation Street; New Century House, Corporation Street (200 metres from The Printworks)

Both venues are a stone’s throw from Manchester Victoria Station

Jul 21st

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - Monday

By Caroline May

The Coffee Hour - New Century 1

Phys Ed - New Century 1


Opening day of the 24:7 Theatre Festival brings blue skies and excited audiences for early performances of the 21 new shows on offer.  Follow the link to the 24:7 website (below) for video trailers, show times and further information.


The Coffee Hour by Arden-trained Michael Peacock is about strangers who literally bump into each other in a coffee shop.  Laura is nursing a mug of caffeine, not to mention the remains of a bottle of house red, at her solitary table in a café-bar, so it’s no surprise that she’s as highly-strung as a Bechstein grand and doesn’t take kindly to having her drink spilled by the clumsy and unselfconscious Adam.  Adam’s equally clumsy attempts at conversation result in screwball comedy-style quick-fire wit and repartee, but as the sparks fly Laura’s icy demeanour gradually thaws. 


However the casual encounter is transformed into a moving and emotional relationship when the banter dies down and Laura reveals her hidden sorrow - the tragic loss of her much-loved sister who was the victim of a hit-and-run accident.  Suffering from survivor’s guilt and seeing forgiveness as a form of betrayal in spite of the quietus it might bring to her own soul, Sarah Wylie beautifully captures the ebb and flow of Laura’s confused feelings.  Michael Peacock as Adam is especially strong in his laid-back lothario guise, with the kind of expressive comedy eyes that almost need no dialogue.  A touching two-hander.


On a completely different note, Phys Ed by Simon Carter is a comedy monologue about rugby obsessed PE teacher Neville Trellis.  Trellis is played by Library Theatre favourite Nicholas Osmond, a man for whom the phrase “romantic juvenile lead” might have been coined, so it’s entirely to his credit that he sheds all vestiges of dignity and self-respect to embrace his inner geek so convincingly.


Trellis tells us about his difficult journey through life as the bed-wetting younger twin of a future England sports star; lets us into the secrets of his brethren, the tight-trackie-bottom wearing, underpant-shunning Phys Ed teaching mafia; and draws the obvious parallels between King Arthur’s Round Table and the quest to win the England schools invitation trophy, his personal holy grail.


Simon Carter’s script lets the actor ventriloquise an entire cast of unsavoury characters in addition to his anti-anti-hero, and Nicholas Osmond easily holds the audience enraptured for 55 minutes.  But his bravura solo performance is supported by excellent use of sound and lighting in what is a real team effort - well done lads! has all the show information including video trailers


Tickets: £8/£6 (conc): book online from the 247 website or ring 0870 428 0785 (or turn up at the venues)


Venues: Pure at the Printworks, off Withy Grove/Corporation Street; New Century House, Corporation Street (200 metres from The Printworks)

Both venues are a stone’s throw from Manchester Victoria Station

Jul 20th

24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester - previews

By Caroline May

The Last Chair - New Century 2

Temp/Casual - New Century 2

Working Title - Pure/Funktion

Detaining Mr K - New Century 1

Donal Fleet: A Confessional - New Century 2


We’re only into the second half of July and Manchester is already holding its third major theatrical event of the month.  But forget the Manchester International Festival and Not Part Of, because the 24:7 Theatre Festival is by comparison the great-granddaddy of the city’s new writing festivals, 2009 being its sixth consecutive year.


The three well-established stages at Pure in the Printworks are joined by two venues at New Century House, a mere 200 metres further up Corporation Street, meaning that this year there are no more nightmare sprints across the city centre between performances.  Plenty of time then to chill out, get some drinks in, catch up with old friends and have an animated discussion about the 21 shows on offer.


Ian Townsend burst on to the 24:7 scene last year with the filthy farce Granny Must Die, but in 2009 he’s moved into the sophisticated arena of absurdist comedy with The Last Chair.  A lone chair is centre-stage.  On it is a man in a suit - just sitting.  Along comes a woman in an evening dress who tries to prise him from his chair - she’s had a hard day, fancies a sit down, and as it happens there are no more chairs in the whole world. 


This simple premise is the opportunity for a writer with a keen ear for the northern vernacular and a real love of language to showcase his skills, as well as creating a comedy double-act for Karl Lucas and Hayley Fairclough.   The cross-talk, patter and slapstick recall the golden era of comics like Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Morecambe and Wise. 


Steve Timms’s Temp/Casual is a comedy drama about four ex-college friends whose dreams and ambitions have faded into dull compromise and McJobs - a kind of slacker northern This Life.  Poet Martin finds himself writing odes for the tourist board, actress Susan branches out into adult entertainment, and aspiring stand-up Adam deals drugs to his mate Stick when he should be honing his routine.  How great it is to see the dramatic events taking place on stage in front of the audience rather than being relegated to back-story or some kind of cryptic sub-textual code.  Instead the writer is brave enough to show us the violence, drug taking, love making, exam marking, sexual role play and performance poetry that make up the lives of these young, northern, urban graduates.  The idiom and frame of references in the script are so specific that at times I found the dialogue nearly incomprehensible, but the intention behind the lines is clear enough.  There was enough meat in the story to make a much longer play, or even a TV series, with a large cast of characters and a number of complex story threads ambitiously squished into the all-too-brief 60 minute slot.


Back at Pure Working Title written and performed by James Jowett and Adam Davies delves into the realms of the surreal and post-modern.  Will and Anthony are trying to come up with a script in time for a theatre festival deadline.  At their wits’ end, they decide to write about themselves writing a script - potentially the most undramatic, self-serving, and pretentious premise for a show ever seen at 24:7.  Instead this comedy is an absolute triumph as the writers watch new characters walk into their lives at the suggestion of their director, and then in desperation devise increasingly wild stratagems to write them out of the script in real time.  Sword-fighting, Spanish ninjas and a body double feature in the frenetic fun, with Michael Anthony Bond particularly memorable as the predatory, camp and wholly unwanted new flatmate Patrick.  Potentially Working Title might have amounted to no more than an over-extended sketch, but by the end it’s an intellectually stretching and genuinely theatrical comedy.  A five star hit if ever I saw one.


Returning to New Century House for Detaining Mr K by James Douglas I found myself well-disposed to the show before it even started - the company hands out caramelised coffee biscuits on entry (which is more than you get at The Cornerhouse these days).  While I was initially expecting a harrowing political play, what I actually got was a harrowing political play grafted onto an Ealing Comedy.


A man in white overalls is thrown into a clinical white room.  This is Britain in 2010 and Anthony has just spent 26 days being detained without trial - the experience has been traumatic judging by his uncontrollable trembling and sweating.  Luckily his latest interrogator, the be-slippered and be-suited Pauline, has a different approach to obtaining information - a nice cup of tea and a gypsy cream.


The clash of styles - the minutely-observed naturalism of Anthony (played by Anthony Bentley) and the broad Cockney stereotype of Pauline (Ruth Urquhart) - looks like a disaster in theory.  But thanks to James Douglas’s superb script and the absolutely true performances from the actors, these disparate elements become an organic whole. 


The play is also gripping purely as a political thriller, using CCTV clips, footage from surveillance cameras and recorded play-back of the ongoing interview to reveal hidden stories and layers of meaning.  This has got to be one of the best uses of new media I have seen in any theatrical context, let alone 24:7.  When so many productions use film projections to no good effect whatsoever - including two I saw today which shall remain nameless - Detaining Mr K embeds the technology as an integral part of its storyline.  You really must see this excellent show.


Finally, Donal Fleet: A Confessional by Sean Gregson is what you’d probably get if Harold Pinter had written a play set in Wythenshawe.  The intriguing mise-en-scène - a mosaic of ill-matched second-hand furniture, piles of loose manuscripts, and a drinks trolley, Dansette record-player and antique typewriter - might once have passed for a sinister and seedy bedsit, but these days has the intellectual ambience of a Writer’s Room feature in an aspirational Sunday broadsheet culture supplement. 


Donal Fleet, a middle-aged impoverished Bohemian living in self-imposed isolation and very good tweeds, is awoken by The Lad, a vaguely threatening presence from his past.  Then The Lad’s wife, The Woman, arrives; a sexual temptress who reminds one of Ruth in The Homecoming, only with the added intrigue of a European accent.


It has to be said that, as in most Pinter plays, you’re never really sure what has brought such diverse people together, and they don’t behave like real people but like characters out of a Pinter play.  Nothing that a team of Spanish ninjas wouldn’t have improved in my opinion. has all the show information including video trailers



£8/£6 (conc): book online from the 247 website or ring 0870 428 0785 (or turn up at the venues)



Pure at the Printworks, off Withy Grove/Corporation Street

New Century House, Corporation Street (200 metres from The Printworks)

Both venues are a stone’s throw from Manchester Victoria Station (train/tram/bus/ Metroshuttle No. 2)

Jul 5th

Everybody Loves a Winner - Manchester International Festival/Royal Exchange Theatre

By Caroline May

Eyes down for a full house, everyone!  It’s festival time here in Manchester, and to give visitors an authentic taste of life Up North the Royal Exchange Theatre has been transformed into a bingo hall for the duration.  With plastic chairs, dirty carpets, tea in polystyrene cups and flashing scoreboards around the auditorium, you almost believe you’re at the Gorton Mecca or Salford Gala.

Writer-director Neil Bartlett re-creates the full-on bingo experience with a cast of twenty actors who play the few remaining customers and skeleton staff of a run-down establishment which is on the brink of closing.  The regulars are a raggle-taggle crew who remain loyal, not to the hall, but to the ongoing hope of having a life-changing win - or even a win that will buy them a weekend away, clear their credit cards, pay for their wedding, or just feed and clothe their kids. 

The evening is an amazing hybrid of traditional scripted drama, verbatim theatre and site-specific installation, encompassing audience participation, Greek choruses and musical numbers.  Knowing full well that the usual Exchange audience will never have set foot inside a bingo hall, Neil Bartlett gives us a practical lesson in housey-housey, with clip-boards, game cards and “dabbers” (pens) under every seat, and the chance to play along in the second half for £200 of cash prizes every night.

Ian Puleston-Davies is the “caller” Frank, comparatively glamorous in his frilly dress shirt and bow tie, but after twenty-odd years he’s too old and jaded to enjoy the attention any more.

Sally Lindsay as Linda, the struggling manager, shows us exactly how she puts on a brave performance for the benefit of staff and customers to try and keep the old place alive.

Linda’s insubordinate staff members are Warren Sollars as sex-obsessed Joe, Amanda Henderson as gobby Joy and Emily Alexander as disdainful Debbie - all still young and full of life, they sizzle in a series of slick musical routines.

The fifteen actors who comprise the customers play their well-defined roles with impressive naturalism, but also slip easily into the stylised choric sequences, murmuring their hidden hopes like prayers.  The unity which the musical director Simon Deacon and movement director Struan Leslie achieve with this chorus is extraordinary.

Everybody Loves a Winner doesn’t really have a story or come to any profound conclusions (other than “you’ve got to be in it to win it” or “it could be you”), but it does provide the audience with an entertaining, involving and unique theatrical experience.


Everybody Loves a Winner is on until Saturday 1 August 2009

Prices: £8.50-£29.00

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833

Jun 19th

The Pianist at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

Two years ago audiences were raving about Neil Bartlett’s Manchester International Festival production of The Pianist, which was originally staged in the highly unconventional setting of a loft above the Museum of Science and Industry.  Now there’s another chance to see it with the original cast in the Royal Exchange main house.

The piece is based on the wartime memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist who survived the horrors of Warsaw during World War II – Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film from 2003 was based on the same material. 

This version of the story opens with Warsaw’s Jewish population already incarcerated in the ghetto - overcrowded, starving, infested with vermin and lice, when typhus inevitably breaks out there is nowhere to bury the dead, and rotting bodies lie stripped naked on the streets.  Wladyslaw is now reduced to playing the piano in bars, but eventually his family is summoned for transportation from the ghetto to some unknown destination far away.  As the disinfected cattle trucks draw into the station Wladyslaw seizes his chance to flee, and then spends lonely years hiding in the ruins of what had recently been one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, trying to elude starvation, cold and the Nazis.

The auditorium is stark – merely a wooden floor, a grand piano, a chair, and two performers: actor Peter Guinness, who narrates, and pianist Mikhail Rudy, who punctuates the narrative with music by Chopin and Szpilman himself.  Peter Guinness, with a piercing gaze that takes in the whole audience from the front stalls to the back of the gods, prowls endlessly around the piano as he repeats his tale with the simplicity of a Greek messenger.  It’s an incredibly stripped-down form of story-telling, and the few moments of drama are all the more effective for their rarity.  At the keyboard Mikhail Rudy does far more than provide a pretty background accompaniment – sometimes his playing pushes the difficult emotions even further, sometimes music is the only thing which can resolve and diffuse the tension.  The frisson when Guinness and Rudy interact is thrilling. 

Despite the ostensible minimalism of the design and staging, Chris Davey’s wonderful lighting creates a tangible sense of atmosphere, location, season and mood.

The Royal Exchange main house has never felt so intimate, and The Pianist reveals that it’s not just a wonderful theatre space but also a brilliant venue for chamber music.


The Pianist is on until Saturday 27 June 2009

Prices: £8.50-£27.00

Evenings: Mon-Sat @ 8pm (excluding Wed 24)

Matinees: Wed 24 @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833


Jun 18th

Manchester's 2:47 Theatre Festival launches this year's programme

By Caroline May
Running from 20-26 July, Manchester's top festival of new writing showcases 21 original one-hour pieces in unconventional venues.  

The programme features a mix of experienced and new writers, while previous 247-ers returning this year include Steve Timms, Ian Townsend and Steve Pearce.

Tickets are £8 (£6 concessions) and the venues - The Printworks and New Century House - are both conveniently situated for Victoria Station, buses and Metrolink.

For full details of shows, times, tickets, locations etc visit:

Jun 8th

The Seafarer by Conor McPherson at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

Octagon_Theatre_-_The_Seafarer_production_photo_8[1].jpgThe Seafarer

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

5 June 2009


The final show in the Octagon season is Mark Babych’s valedictory production before he steps down as artistic director.  The Seafarer is another example of his passion for new writing, skill at working with a tight ensemble on an intense chamber piece, and penchant for black comedy – a characteristic choice from the director who brought us Four Knights in Knaresborough, Blue/Orange and assorted Martin McDonagh classics. 

Sharky, a shambolic middle-aged drifter, has mysteriously jacked in his chauffeuring job down south and returned to the bosom of his family for Christmas.  “Family” now comprises his blind older brother Richard and their drinking buddy Ivan, whose exasperated wife has chucked him out yet again.  In this dysfunctional company, and surrounded by every kind of alcohol, Sharky’s attempts at abstinence are already under pressure.  But then his arch-enemy Nicky comes round for a game of poker, accompanied by the enigmatic Mr Lockhart.  Nicky thinks he accidentally bumped into Mr Lockhart in a bar, but in fact Mr Lockhart has purposely come to claim a twenty-five-year-old debt from the doomed Sharky.

Conor McPherson’s monologue-heavy Shining City was at the Octagon a couple of years ago, but The Seafarer is a fuller-bodied piece, getting away from the long story-telling form by deploying the cast of five in a genuinely dramatic manner.  It’s also an out-and-out Irish comedy, though again with a supernatural twist.

The cast handle the Mamet-style dialogue with aplomb, and their characterisations are well observed, from Michael O’Connor’s edgy alcoholic Sharky, pacing the tiny basement room like a caged animal, to Peter Dineen as his monstrous brother, whose spirit remains strong but whose features are disintegrating like a digestive biscuit dunked in a cup of tea.  Brendan Charleson is piteous but funny as the myopic Ivan, and Leigh Symonds captures the way that Nicky’s confident designer-label self-image is actually a cheap counterfeit.  However it’s Fintan McKeown as the Mr Lockhart who brings another dimension to the play.  The crumpled white linen suit, goatee beard and pony-tail immediately mark him out from his grubby companions, as do his aristocratic bearing and a mesmeric bass-baritone.  And when he rants passionately about his contempt for the human body his voice seems to emerge directly from the unfathomed depths of hell.  His mastery of the role is absolute.

When the lights come up on Patrick Connellan’s incredibly detailed set we immediately know where we are - a former family home which has been taken over by undomesticated single men, with darts sticking out of the lampshade, a bar mat antimacassar over the back of the armchair, and the carpet carpeted by empty bottles and beer cans.  Even the bubbling fish tank plays its part, while Tom Dexter Scott’s subtle lighting underlines the other-worldly episodes without being intrusive.

This is a really funny night at the theatre for lovers of black Irish humour with a sting in the tail.  After this magnificent swan-song we can only hope that Mark Babych’s work will continue to be seen in the north-west, even if it’s just touring to The Lowry.



The Seafarer is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 27 June 2009

Tickets: from £9.00

Evenings: Mon-Sat at 7.30pm

Matinees: Wednesday 17 and Saturday 27 May @ 2pm

Box Office: 01204 520661