24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester
Time was when the 24:7 theatre festival spanned a whole week and featured a host of new productions. Over the past 11 years it’s played to 40,000 people and has enjoyed the backing of the Arts Council and Manchester City Council. This year, largely because of difficulties with funding, the festival has been drastically scaled down to a single weekend, featuring just a handful of plays and talk is that this may even be the last time it happens: a real tragedy if that proves to be the case because it has always been a source of exciting, thought-provoking theatre and this year proves to be no exception. I hope it won’t end here, and it was heartening indeed to see that the John Thaw Theatre was absolutely packed for the two performances that B & B managed to attend.
We Are The Multitude, written by Laura Harper and directed by Liz Stevenson, is a tightly constructed two-hander which plunges a couple of University office employees into a long dark night of the soul (or more accurately a morning and afternoon of it) when they discover that they are the only workers who have come in to the office on the day when it has been occupied by ‘The Multitude,’ a group of militant activists who are threatening to blow the place to kingdom come, if their demands are not met.
Simon (Andy Blake) is a once-promising author who after failing to write the difficult second novel has had to buckle down to the realities of an unfulfilling desk job. Lisa (Amy Drake) occupies the desk next to him and is currently preparing herself for a meeting with HR, citing bullying from her boss, after she refused to allow Lisa to take time off to attend a funeral – that of her neighbour’s cat.
The chalk and cheese pairing of the two protagonists yields plenty of laughs – right from the start it’s clear by the state of their respective desks that here are two people who are destined to get right up each other’s noses – but as their situation becomes ever more perilous, they inevitably begin to open up to each other and reveal the tragic truths of their respective situations. It soon becomes clear that they have more in common than anyone might have supposed. Both performances are spot on, with Drake in particular mining her hapless character for maximum laughs. There’s also a last minute twist that few people will see coming.
Funny, but ultimately poignant, WATM makes for an entertaining and occasionally surprising hour of theatre.
Gary: A Love Story is writer James Harker’s debut play – but it doesn’t show. This is a confident, assured two-hander, directed with deft precision by Danielle McIlven – and it’s a joy to watch.
The protagonist is Andrew, brother of the eponymous Gary and the hour-long drama charts the ups and downs of their relationship, as they grow from children into young adults. Andrew is the high-achieving older brother, protector of his needier, ‘Mum-says-I’m-special’ sibling. Gary is naive, enthusiastic, excitable and vulnerable, a target for bullies and easy to manipulate. Andrew clearly loves him, but just as clearly finds him exasperating and a drain. They draw together in the face of family turmoil – their father’s leaving; the arrival of a new stepdad. And they fall apart when, on leaving school with good exam results, Andrew is employed on a management training scheme, while Gary, who has failed all of his exams, even the science he has so enjoyed – starts dealing drugs and idling his life away, alienating his family and bringing trouble to their home. Andrew loses patience and they fall out. It’s a heartbreaking tale; poor Gary never stands a chance. The odds are stacked against him: really, what is he supposed to do? He’s a sweet boy; it’s not his fault that there’s no place for him; it’s not his fault he’s not the clever one. Tragically, inevitably, he ends up in gaol – and Andrew is forced to re-evaluate his feelings for the baby brother with whom he has shared so much.
The set – two chairs, an old juke box and stacks of cardboard boxes – is a treasure trove of evidence, bearing witness to the past. When Andrew, in the grip of emotion, begins to destroy it, the whole edifice explodes – and it’s a devastating moment for the audience as well.
Both performances here are top-notch. Reuben Johnson, as Andrew, has the showier role, but Craig Morris, as Gary, is the perfect foil.
Truly, this is a gem of a play, with beautifully realised characters and dialogue. I have no doubt we will hear more from playwright James Harker.