Every year, in  August, I take a quick diversion from the world of tax to review the productions in the 24:7 Theatre Festival. This year my review is somewhat delayed by the fact that the Olympics followed closely upon the Festival (see following blog post) for which I apologise, but stretching the ageing memory bank more than usual I reckon I can still do a reasonable job. By the way, for anyone expecting absolute objectivity, I have an interest to declare as a trustee of the charity that runs the Festival, although as befits an accountant I am very wisely let nowhere near the creative process!

2012’s incarnation was the ninth annual Festival, and I have to say that the overall standard of productions just keeps getting better and better. For non-Festival goers, work must be previously unperformed, not more than an hour in length and capable of being performed in non-orthodox theatre spaces (this year two venues in New Century House and the Three Minute Theatre in Affleck’s Arcade). The quality was in my view greatly helped by the decision a few years ago to cut down the programme from 17 to 21 productions to 10, which means that plays have to reach a very high standard to get into the Festival. And boy did that show this year!

The Olympics dictated that I had to get my festival going in early this year, so on opening night I eventually found the Three Minute Theatre after an entertaining tour of Affleck’s Palace to see two productions:

  1. 1.       Firestarter

Apparently based on true events in Hull a few decades ago, this was the story of a teenage arsonist. The first half of the play featured the young man explaining how a troubled childhood led him into fire-raising, with a particularly chilling yet totally convincing description of the sensations that starting fires engendered in him. The second half found him having chosen the wrong house at the wrong time for his activities, as he had fallen foul of a man just released from prison, played as an all-too-convincing psychopath by Festival veteran Richard Vergette. Despite the best efforts of his plainly terrified girlfriend, Vergette’s character eventually inflicts sickening violence on the young arsonist.

Very powerful and convincing writing and performances, and an accurate introduction to a Festival that was to be long on gritty reality and relatively short of outright humour, although plenty of the ‘black’ variety was on display in other productions.

  1. 2.       My Arms

Second on the bill on Friday night was the compelling two-hander “My Arms”. This told the tale of an act of drunken driving and its far-reaching consequences for families of perpetrator and victim, in ingenious fashion from back-to-front. If this sounds like a recipe for confusion it wasn’t, due to an intelligent script and sympathetic performances. I felt that, having previously condemned drunk-drivers out of hand, the play gave an understanding of how easily the offence can be committed, and how it can then haunt the lives of all concerned. Powerful yet under-stated, in a festival that sometimes shouted to get your attention, this kept it with a subtle whisper.

  1. 3.       Loaded

I had not previously sampled the Festival during the day at a weekend, but this year needs must, so     to more familiar territory in New Century House (Pioneer Stage) for Loaded. The play centred on Chantelle, an oddly endearing if foul-mouthed teenager, sent as a last educational chance to see a Geordie social worker, who manages to work out what makes Chantelle  tick and make some progress with her. Meanwhile Chantelle has met an apprentice gangster who becomes her boyfriend, although the bigger threat to her well-being initially seems to come from her abusive stepfather, who rapes Chantelle, resulting in her becoming pregnant (Republican politicians please note).

The plot thickens as Chantelle catches her boyfriend with a gun, which she appropriates. All comes to a head when boyfriend discovers what stepfather has done, leading to an explosive and unpredictable climax from which some characters emerge more fortunately than others. I found I really engaged with and cared about the characters in this play, which was a tribute to some fine writing and acting.

  1. 4.       Goldfish

Next up on the Elphick Stage at New Century House was Goldfish. This was less immediately accessible than some of the other work on offer, but nonetheless rewarded the effort of keeping track of what was afoot. The play centres on two teenage girls from troubled families, who frequent a day centre on their estate run by a social worker who, whilst devoted to the children in her care, is concerned that this results in her neglecting her own child.

The male characters are a teenage boy, new to the estate, his family having moved down in the world, who befriends the two girls but is ineligible to attend the day centre with them, apparently on the basis that he and his family do not have any major issues, and a policeman new to the estate, whose enthusiasm for his role leads him into a potentially career and liberty-threatening situation with one of the girls. As his life implodes, the teenage boy sets fire to the day centre, having concluded that bad behaviour is the only way to get noticed

A moral story for our day dealing with the paving of the road to hell, the slightly unorthodox presentation of this piece did not detract from its power or its message.

  1. 5.       The Cell   

Sunday lunchtime and a final trip to Three Minute Theatre for a fast-moving piece centring on an unusual hostage situation in a prison, as a prison officer takes a wise-cracking Scouser hostage (not a situation that appears to unduly worry the prisoner), having assaulted a prisoner he believes to have been responsible for the suicide of a young sex offender. Revelations come thick and fast, including the fact that the Scouse prisoner has an impressive network of contacts and illegal hardware (“who do you think I am, 118?”) asks the prisoner in the next cell at one point, and rather darker revelations about the prison and the officer, including the fact that his son is accused of an under-age sex offence, and the officer has been ‘hung out to dry’ by his senior officer. Eventually the officer cracks, finally shattering the cool of the prisoner as he takes desperate action.

This was a real highlight, black humour contrasting with a tragic story line to make an absorbing play that flew past, usually a sign of high quality in my experience.

  1. 6.       The Interpreter, Home

Monday night and the Manchester Business Breakfast Club 24:7 trip, with record numbers of attendees for three productions, the first of which was an understated and compelling drama about the mystery of a silent Kurdish psychiatric patient and the student engaged to interpret for her. Of particular merit were the greys in which the characters were painted, particularly the keen young psychiatrist, anxious to help her patient in any way she can but concerned about hospital procedures, and the nurse, highly efficient but perhaps lacking in certain of the human qualities normally associated with her role.

The young interpreter goes way beyond her brief to seek to help the patient, eventually tracking down her long-lost son, who reluctantly re-enters his mother’s life at the denouement. The play particularly appealed as a triumph of unorthodox methods over the tried and trusted, and of persistence in doing  what you know is right when everyone around you is telling you it is wrong, and benefitted from wonderful performances, particularly from interpreter and patient.

  1. 7.       The Transit of Venus

Next up was one of my personal highlights of the festival, so good that I created another first and took my 11-year old son to see it subsequently (he greatly enjoyed it too).

The reason for taking my son is that the play centres on astronomy, as two Lancastrian amateur astronomers plot and witness the UK’s first passing of Venus between Earth and Sun, against the backdrop of impending Civil War, which has dark consequences for one of the astronomers.

Again this was wonderfully understated, with a touching depiction of the burgeoning of shy young love between the daughter of one of the astronomers and the other. The play also carried a strong moral message about the difficulty of steering a middle course when all around are extremists, and about the importance of sticking to your principles at the hour of crisis. A work for all concerned to be proud of.

  1. 8.       The Legend of the Ghost Shark

A rare comedy next, and a manic one at that. A writer moonlights from his day job as a food critic to take a commission from a shaman to write a legend that threatens to have dire consequences for the world. Also featuring a narrator conjured from the writer’s subconscious, an angry boss from his food magazine, a somewhat bewildered wife and two eccentric policemen, this was a chaotic hit and miss production that divided opinion among those I spoke to down the middle. Certainly it had the potential to bewilder if you did not throw yourself whole-heartedly into the writer’s bizarre world, but there was much to reward those who contrived to do so in the performances and (from time to time) the script. Ten out of ten for effort for all concerned, even if the execution marks were somewhat lower.

  1. 9.       Stars Are Fire

Tuesday night and another under-stated treat, a play about a widowed father returning to his native Northumberland, much against the will of his teenage daughter. She befriends her cousin ( a touching and rather innocent relationship), and as a result father and daughter come to a better understanding of each other. Apart from a large number of distracting scene changes, which might usefully have been cut down, this was a subtle piece of work dissecting what makes families tick, and a very rewarding watch.

  1. 10.   All The Bens

Another highlight to finish with. Ben wants to start a relationship with Al, but Al is not really interested. Ben’s autistic cousin Henry hits it off with Al, who finds himself drawn into friendship with Henry, but not keen on continuing to see Ben. Al’s somewhat bizarre behaviour finally causes his girlfriend to drop him, allowing him to come to terms with himself, and the fact that he is really called Ben.

Three excellent performances, particularly from the actor playing Henry, who brilliantly portrays Henry’s somewhat unusual take on the world. All in all a pithy comment on the mess we can make of our relationships and the unlikely friendships that can spring up out of nowhere.

So overall another excellent Festival, indeed I would go so far as to say the best yet. On an individual basis nothing to quite displace Concrete Ribbons as best ever play, but collectively an excellent programme. Surely 24:7 can’t improve upon that again next year, can it?…………..