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24:7 Theatre Festival, Three Plays, Three Reviews

Joan Davies gets around a bit and finds some glorious work and some not so good

Published on July 25th 2013.

24:7 Theatre Festival, Three Plays, Three Reviews

Review One: Daylight Robbery

Daylight Robbery is my first visit this year to the 24:7 series of inexpensive one-hour plays. Jerome Caminada has two mysteries to solve: a series of robberies of single gentlemen in Didsbury, and a tall dead man in a too-small suit fished out of the open sewer that was the River Medlock in Victorian times.

There’s a germ of a good idea here, but the plot needs to be thickened out with characterisation. 

In modern days we’re used to TV detectives finding links between apparently unconnected crimes; we’ve come to expect it. But real life detectives don’t find the packaging neatly done for them. Jerome Caminada was one of Manchester’s finest bringing over 1,000 crooks to justice during his 1868 to 1899 career.

Caminada fascinates many today. According to writer Micheál Jacob, Caminada was “seen as an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes…….he relied on his wits. His techniques included donning various disguises to track criminals and springing outlandish traps – he once hid inside a grand piano to catch a thief.”  So there’s plenty of scope on which to build a short play, maybe even a TV series.

Jacob has built a complex tale of two crimes and an enquiring mind. The plot is well delivered, the writer’s experience, Jacob is a former head of BBC mainstream comedy, deftly tells the audience what it needs to know, and there are plenty of local references.

It starts well. Three local Victorian youngsters greet the arriving audience and are amazed by the flashing items everyone takes out of their pockets. I fear they’re scuttlers so keep mine hidden. Costumes, thanks to the Royal Exchange, are impressive, though perhaps a little too clean.

Among a seven-strong cast Christopher Faith and Kerry Lorenza-Bennett are particularly strong, playing multiple characters throughout and giving them some weight and consistency despite the frequent short scenes. Francesca Waite is good too. Joshua Wilkinson is playing too far above his natural age and this shows, despite excellent timing and diction. James Dunn is just right.

I’m less convinced by the piece as a whole. This is partly due to the writing: there’s little sign here of Caminada’s thought processes or an examination of what made him so outstanding. It’s partly to do with the pace of the play: difficult decisions are made quickly while there are unnatural gaps between some of the lines and a few fluffs. This was a second performance and in the short life of a 24:7 play, without the luxury of public previews, needs to be sharper.

Marcus McMillan as Caminada gave a mixed performance. Caminada as portrayed was undoubtedly clever at times, likeable too, but seemed lacking in the confidence you’d expect from a Sherlock inspiration.

There’s a germ of a good idea here, but the plot needs to be thickened out with characterisation. Morse was great, and Lewis eventually got better, with two hours to play with. One hour plays can have depth, as previous visits to 24:7 have shown. Perhaps with sharper playing and a larger, more responsive, audience the comedy will come to the fore later in the run. 

Review Two: No Soft Option

No Soft Option, the latest play from Manchester playwright and ex-police sergeant Brian Marchbank, explores the funny side of Community Service. Four offenders are forced together to paint a wall as part of their community service. They have little in common except a criminal record.  Even the intention to skive isn’t universal.

If there's a message it's about the nonsense of making Community Service a task where quality is unimportant rather than using it to help build pride and a sense if self-worth.

In a packed Three Minute Theatre this is an immensely enjoyable show.  Certainly it’s somewhat formulaic and loaded towards stereotypes, with a rather forced message about the value of bonding with other people.  But the writing’s bright and sparky, the back stories have an originality, and the performances are spot-on. The cast have a keen sense of comic timing and their stories emerge naturally. Direction is sharp, movement around a crowded stage is made easy, costumes are character expressive and the use of props absolutely natural.

Kimberley Hart-Simpson as Abby, the loud-and-foul-mouthed girl with anger-management issues and a golden heart, takes her character well-beyond the two-dimensional pink-track-suited icons of TV comedy.

Samuel Thompson as Chazz, fussy about the two Zs, has the body language of a hard young man with a soft-centre and a lack of self-belief.  

Jane Allighan's portrayal of the soft but genuinely scary Karen is absolutely believable, while Leo Atkin's Malcolm would have felt at home in 'Dad's Army': pomposity awaiting a pricking.

Katie Mcardle is recognisable as the inexperienced professional, determined not to undermine her standards, negotiating clients and managers with varying degrees of success. Penelope McDonald has the hardest time as unbending, cynical manager Viv: a wall for the rest of the cast to bang their heads against.

Writer Marchbank and director Jeff Butler have crafted a very funny show. If there's a message it's about the nonsense of making Community Service a task where quality is unimportant rather than using it to help build pride and a sense if self-worth; Community Service shouldn't be seen as a soft option for the authorities. They should put more effort into it. 

As the 24:7 Festival only allows each playwright to have three plays performed, It’s the last chance to see a Brian Marchbank play at 24:7, but given the quality of his writing, both Pawn and Flag were very popular, I doubt it will be the last time we’ll see his work.

Review Three: Temper

A lunchtime performance of ‘Temper’, the debut play of new writer Richard O’Neill directed by Chris Bridgman, reminds me of the strengths of 24:7

Realistic writing, taut direction and confident performances ensure a captivated audience for this Royton-based tale of young men, their sense of themselves and their relationship with the not-so-wide world.

The play’s constructed a little like one of those pieces of classical music where lots of ideas are thrown in, provoke thought and entertain, yet never throw the dominant theme from its course.

Calum is leaving a voice mail for a girlfriend, his considerably older girlfriend. That’s not all he’s leaving: he’s departing his flat, his job, his girlfriend, and with no notice at all. It just would be better that way.  Is he intending to leave life too? We’re left guessing. One of the strengths of this play is that it lets you make up your own mind.

A visit from neighbour Mick, a recognisable Manc loser, slows his departure long enough for Debs, the older girlfriend to arrive. Departure plans are on put on hold. 

Calum occupies a no-man’s land in a council flat in Royton, a once proud mill-town between Oldham and Rochdale. The walls are thin, and ceiling and floor seem even thinner, so though life isn’t always very sociable he can’t escape society’s gaze. His no man’s land goes further; educated to degree level he’s no longer stretching himself, and spends his days somewhat aimlessly in a mediocre job, entertaining himself with computer games when his girlfriend isn’t around. He has some ambition, but neither the drive nor confidence to see it through.

Andrew Madden’s performance as Calum is central to the success of this play. Calum has choices to make throughout and Madden holds the audience at every point. Taran Knight as Mick is entertaining, a sufficiently gormless yet oddly endearing portrayal of a young man of limited intellect and a constant striving for optimism. I never knew that ‘nice one’ could have so many meanings.

Jane Leadbetter is utterly convincing as Debs, the still young woman seeking excitement and romance now that her children have the reached the age when they can use the washing machine, provided mum instructs them over the phone.

The writing keeps open the door on interpretation: is it about young men and their anger with the world, or is it about young men whose relationship with the world is sabotaged by their own limitations – limitations of intellect, aspiration, confidence or imagination? There’s a neat complexity of ideas too, the play’s constructed a little like one of those pieces of classical music where lots of ideas are thrown in, provoke thought and entertain, yet never throw the dominant theme from its course.

Highly recommended.

These plays are part of the 24:7 Theatre Festival, and runs from July 19 to 25 at New Century House, 2022NQ and Three Minute Theatre.

Plays run throughout the day and evening, last no more than one hour and cost no more than £8.

Tickets are available from www.247theatrefestival.co.uk 

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