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24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester 2011 - Sunday

Published by: Caroline May on 25th Jul 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May

On a fabulous summer’s day the centre of Manchester was buzzing with music from the International Jazz Festival, while in the bowels of various landmark buildings the 24:7 Theatre Festival continued with its mission to champion new writing.

The Shadow of Your Hand – Sachas Hotel

Sachas Hotel on the fringes of Manchester’s Trendy Northern Quarter™ proved even more quirky than I could have anticipated, as the Washington Suite sprung a leak resulting in last-minute shifts and technical compromises for some of the shows.

I was lucky to see Michael Stewart’s psychological drama The Shadow of Your Hand in its original, if slightly damp, venue. The script is intense in its own right, but it would have been a shame to miss out on the claustrophobic atmosphere created by an excellent lighting scheme.

The story focuses on the developing relationship between a lonely, middle-aged advertising exec (Stephen) and the homeless girl he’s brought back to his city-centre apartment.

Without much tweaking this two-hander could have been a monologue, as the character of Stephen completely runs away with the play. Gauche, shy and unintentionally hilarious, actor Steven Pindar seizes all the role’s wide-ranging scope for comedy, tragedy, pathos, braggadocio, craven cowardice and cruelty. Michael Stewart never loses an opportunity to give colour to the character through action or speech, creating an in-depth portrait of a flawed but sympathetic human being.

Although billed as The Servant meets Reservoir Dogs, the dynamic between Stephen and the girl fails to develop satisfactorily, and poor Rosie Fleeshman struggles to flesh out an almost entirely monosyllabic and unfathomable character. Such writing could work on film where lingering camera shots and extreme close ups would register the merest flicker of emotion and hint at layers of hidden meanings, but even the most intimate theatre venue can’t turn the audience into mind readers.

However the play is well worth catching for the star turn of Steven Pindar, and although the dominance of his character is to the ultimate detriment of the drama, the piece is still highly entertaining.

Peggy and the Spaceman – Sachas Hotel

This charming story for audiences aged 6+ is about the visit of Yuri Gagarin to Manchester in 1961, only a few months after his historical space flight. Peggy is being bullied at school, but an encounter with the Russian cosmonaut helps her to face her demons.

Peggy is sweetly played by Saira Choudhry, while Luke Roberts is great value as the spaceman, Peggy’s dad and an inspirational teacher. Eve Robertson is extremely versatile as the school bully, Peggy’s dog, and a cantankerous old lady.

Joyce Branagh directs her own script and uses an amazing box-of-tricks-on-wheels to move scenes seamlessly from classroom to kitchen to spaceship, while Janet Weston’s stunning costumes capture the pre-Beetles era. The production is so robust and focussed on character and story that even being deprived of its lighting design couldn’t spoil the show.

Flag - New Century House

Brian Marchbank’s Flag strongly reminded me of Trevor Griffiths’ classic play Comedians: not because Flag is also about stand-up comics, but because of its incredible power and dark drama.

Jimmy Earl (Darren Scott) is an old-school comedian for an old-school audience, touring the last of the working men’s clubs with his mildly un-PC act. Mark Poste (Matthew Stead) is a thrusting young writer more accustomed to student unions and the comedy club circuit.

Mark creates a monstrous character, retired squaddie Corporal Flag, who attacks every aspect of today’s tolerant and multicultural society – and recruits Jimmy to bring Flag to life in front of the kind of young, hip (and large) audiences the old pro has never enjoyed before.

Even though you think you know where the story is going, the writer adds more and more layers to the plot, and constantly redefines the characters before your eyes. The power dynamic between Mark and Jimmy shifts as their act becomes increasingly successful and controversial, until Jimmy can only regain control by momentarily channelling Flag and turning on his own creator.

Matthew Stead has the shallow and ingratiating manner of the young writer down to a tee, and his transformation into a ruthless and humourless powerhouse is totally convincing. Darren Scott is blessed with the classic lugubrious visage of the English comic through the ages – you could easily imagine him as one of the minor members of the Crazy Gang. But when he dons the regimental beret of Corporal Flag and dives into the audience to trade insults, he’s genuinely scary - don‘t sit on the front row if you like your theatrical fourth-wall unbroken!

Brian Marchbank has written a superb and subtle play that resonates in the mind long after the lights come up.

Future Shock - New Century House

Sci-fi so often seems to be about creating exciting new worlds, albeit worlds which have uncanny parallels with our own and which are inexplicably inhabited by two-dimensional characters.

Alas I found this to be the case with Richard Stockwell’s Future Shock, where a banking crisis, an ecological disaster, and the ethics around reproductive technology are still causing problems 1000 years in the future for a trio of off-the-peg archetypes.

The script goes to great pains to imagine the future for earth’s inhabitants and to create a back-story for the bemused Laura, who has been cryogenically frozen for the last 800 years, but in the end the play does little except gradually reveal these details; nothing actually happens.

Christine Clare, unrecognisable as the happy-go-lucky girl of 2009’s Freshers, gives a committed performance as an emotion-free Nazi-like clone. Alice Brockway’s Laura has a lot of shouty arguments with Nicoletta, and Phil Minns’ Stampfer, although sympathetic, is only a cypher.

However the production is beautifully designed and lit with that authentic sci-fi glow, and the costumes and props are worthy of Star Trek. has all the show information including video trailers



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