Space invaders: Manchester takes theatre to new levels

Manchester's 24:7 theatre festival went looking for new audiences in the unlikeliest - and unloveliest - of venues. Paul Vallely reports
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The Independent Culture

There is always something slightly unsettling about a nightclub during daylight hours. Not that any natural light penetrates into the bowels of that place of darkness which is Pure - strapline "believe the hype" - one of a dozen venues in the Printworks complex in Manchester. As you make your way down to the cavernous dancehall you sense that you are participating in a deception, but then controlled deception is what theatre is all about.

The nightclub - its main hall and two of its larger ancillary rooms - have for the past week been given over to the business of daytime theatre, the hours of day ending at around 10pm in the stygian world of clublife. As I moved down the long angled staircase a couple of small tables stood on a dais in the middle of the sprung dance-floor. The flag of Argentina was fixed impromptu on a stand at one end. At the other, onto a small screen where the DJ ought to have been, was projected the cross of a war memorial in the Falklands.

Across the dance-floor two British squaddies were dragging an Argentinean prisoner. The action froze as a woman turned to address the audience, sat in serried chairs either side of the soldiers, as confrontational as the benches in the House of Commons. She spoke, as if addressing a conference, to say that 255 British soldiers had died in that war, but that 264 of those who had seen action there had taken their own lives since - one former Welsh guard, poignantly, committing suicide at 11am one Remembrance Sunday.

This was one of a number of new plays which was being performed in non-theatre venues as part of the 24:7 theatre festival - 24 new plays in seven days, being the conceit behind the title. Bullet Shaped Heart, by Neil A Edwards, was a powerful pocket-sized drama about two paratroopers - one young, idealistic and unnaturally fluent in Spanish, the other hard-bitten and cruel - who take refuge in a farmhouse somewhere near Goose Green.

In the play's compass of less than an hour the relationships between the three men - played with considerable restraint by James Boyland, Daniel Holt and Phil Perez - ebb and flow with some intensity, as war shifts the boundaries of human behaviour and morality. The female narrator, the daughter of one of the dead men, was far too quiveringly didactic in her direction of what we were supposed to feel at each turn. Even so, it was an extraordinary experience to stumble across in a place more routinely dedicated to the business of dance and house music.

"The idea," says one of the festival's two directors, David Slack, "is to attract individuals who would not normally think of entering a theatre". The questionnaires which are given out at the end of each piece, with forceful requests that they be completed there and then, indicate that the target audience is being reached.

It was at the Edinburgh Festival that Slack, an actor, first conceived the idea of a festival of new plays of new writing for new audiences, and doing it in Manchester - a notion which the theatre critic of the Manchester Evening News, Kevin Bourke, told him was brave but barmy. "He proved me wrong," Bourke happily boasted yesterday.

Slack was alarmed that the Edinburgh Fringe was increasingly giving itself over to stand-up comedy. "I wanted something which took us back to proper plays, and new works," he says. "Each performance has 90 minutes in the space - 15 minutes to set everything up, 15 minutes to take it all back down again, and an hour to perform." Ticket prices were to be kept low, no more than £6.

His questionnaires show that it is a genuinely new audience, of around 5,000 across the seven days. "Many people say they haven't been to see a play since they were at school and they are bowled over by the power of the playing in such intimate venues."

Such is the success that one of the other venues, in the basement of one of Manchester's poshest hotels, the Midland - home to government ministers and other illuminati when the city hosts the Labour conference - is beginning to prove too small. One of the shows there, Concrete Ribbons - a surreal comedy about a couple stuck in their high-rise flat when the lift breaks down who find fulfilment in staging three-minute playlets from their balcony for motorists on the abutting flyover - turned so many people away that they had to put in extra performances.

You could see why. It was a festival play, full of fast and furious jokes about plays and playwrights, from Greek tragedy to Godot, which were greeted with such hoots that it seem clear a sizeable section of the audience were certainly not theatrical debutantes. But it was a wild fantasy which owed as much to Three Pints of Lager as to The Three Sisters and was clearly enjoyed by a catholic audience which relished the droll Oirishness of the radio travel bulletins of Malcolm Raeburn, who sounded like Terry Wogan on skunk, as much as the sexual antics of Zoe Thomas and Mark Winstanley and their farcical quick-change routines which culminated in a tragic three-part performance of Wagner's Ring cycle. This was the fourth year of the festival, which had 21 new plays on offer this time. "We start the search for new scripts as soon as the previous festival ends," says the other director, Amanda Hennessy. "This time we had 102 scripts submitted, each of which was read blind by two different adjudicators, who offer some constructive feedback to those who are not selected. Then we have a big gathering - attended by 255 writers, directors and actors this year - to match plays to performers where writers don't already have a link with a company."

Festival slots and venues are jumbled so that each company shares the best and worst times. "Unlike Edinburgh we don't sell the prime slots at 5 or 6 times the price of the others," says David Slack, who is evidently a bit of an egalitarian, and who works without pay. "The readers, technical leaders who fit up each venue, and the front of house people are all volunteers, and we have a flat fee £10 ticket to allow all the artists to see all the other shows."

The knock-on is significant. Last year three shows transferred to the Bolton Octagon whose director was on the look-out again at this year's festival. London literary agents interested in new writing were in evidence. At least one actor Richard Vergette - who performed a monologue he had written himself - has been picked up by a local repertory theatre.

Vergette's An Englishman's Home centred on an English eccentric sent to prison for shooting and killing a petty criminal who has broken into his home. But the real-life case which so incensed the tabloids is given a twist with the invention of a disclosure that the gun-hero and his victim had previously had a homosexual encounter. In a measured and nicely understated narrative Vergette offered a provocative study which ranged wide across the absurdities of the English class system, the inadequacies of modern materialism, the knee-jerk hypocrisy of the British press, and the inarticulacy of 21st century sexuality. Directed with great economy by Andrew Pearson the performance by Vergette was a tour-de-force which would have graced any professional stage.

There was, intriguingly, a common atmospheric in much of the material. The influence of Beckett and Pinter was everywhere to see. "I don't know why," says David Slack. "Last year was quite dramatic and dark. But, you're right, this year has been very Becketty and comedic. Sometimes there is something in the air."

Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the production, by a company called Happy Days, of Kevin Cuffe's play Slowly, Vignettes. This was a very accomplished piece of writing for a first play. It was an enormously derivative piece (perhaps the author would excuse that as a homage) in which an elderly couple, Bessie and Frank, sit in a room waiting, endlessly, for a door to be opened which is always locked, and amusing themselves with the props which lie around, most bizarrely a French Revolution sized guillotine, a fridge full of food, and, chiefly, their memories.

Deliciously Northern in the inconsequentiality of the conversational exchanges, more Bennett than Beckett, it was a deal funnier than many productions of the great man's work. Sue McCormick was sexy and stately as the huge figure of Bessie and another seasoned professional, Robert Maxfield, was psychologically shrivelled as her sometime artist husband. Finally the door opens, and they decide they won't bother going out after all.

The audience, by contrast, were decidedly tickled that they had ventured out for the festival. "It's getting better year by year," said the critic Kevin Bourke. "There's a real energy around. I saw nothing that was less than interesting and some of it was terrific." A verdict with which few who were there would disagree.

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