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24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester 2011 - Friday 29 July

Published by: Caroline May on 30th Jul 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May

A shoe-horn was required to pack the audiences in to the final performances of the 24:7 Theatre Festival, and if you hadn’t booked in advance you risked being disappointed. The 2012 dates are already arranged, so get the end of next July in your diary now for another week of exciting new theatre.

Telling Lives – Sachas Hotel

This Brechtian-influenced show by Eric Northey is set in Prestwich Asylum in 1914. The asylum’s new head, Dr Percival, intends to implement all the latest medical theories, and as part of this practice he compiles detailed records of the inmates.

One by one the patients are interviewed and examined – and the stories of how they came to be incarcerated are as fascinating to the audience as their height, weight and head measurements are to the doctor.

As well as using movement and dancing to express the inmates’ inner feelings, there are specially-composed songs with live musical accompaniment. Some lyrics come from the Song of Solomon, some are apparently verbatim testimonials, and some are cabaret-style chansons, while the lush meandering music feels almost operatic.

There are powerful and poignant performances in this play, notably by Phil Dennison playing both a tragic shell-shocked soldier and an indignant retired dentist committed by his avaricious children.

Sadly the lead actor was indisposed so director Sue Womersley bravely played Dr Percival’s role script-in-hand. However this didn’t seem to dilute the essential honesty and authenticity of the piece.

Steerage – Midland Hotel

I’ve always thought that the Midland’s Victoria Suite was an excellent venue with ideal sight-lines and acoustics, not to mention the air-conditioning which is always welcome at this time of year in small underground spaces crammed with enthusiastic theatre audiences.

However the one thing the Victoria lacks is a raised stage, and I’d been tipped off that unless you sat on the mats at the front you risked not seeing much of this piece.

Steerage by Georgina Perry is set in a shipping container travelling to England with a cargo of illegal immigrants on board.

Zead (Assad Zaman Choudhury) is only a teenager, but has the task of looking after his much younger sister Immy (Catherine Dowling) during the voyage. Tamir (Amir Rahimzadeh) is a profane and bullying taxi driver, and Ibrahim (Ali Gadema) is a powerful and controlling figurehead.

Immy cannot or will not speak, and her hidden emotions are expressed via puppetry and a magic-lantern projection on the back-cloth.

The play is a variant on a scissors-paper-stone power game whereby the four characters locked in this frightening and claustrophobic situation try to assume control over their fellow passengers by capturing three key items: a torch, a knife and a bottle of water. There are many violent confrontations and arguments (for no reason that I could discern), and most of them take place on the floor (and are thus invisible to the majority of the audience).

Personally, I regretted the lack of a real story as much as the absence of a proper chair to sit on, and the Midland’s air-conditioning was inexplicably AWOL. I don’t know if the latter was a deliberate tactic to replicate the stifling atmosphere of a metal shipping container roasting in the midday sun; but when it was finally switched on the refreshing breeze, and the back-cloth billowing like a sail, conveyed a real sense of being at sea.

www.247theatrefestival.co.uk  has all the show information including video trailers

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