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Fireflies at the Lowry Theatre

Modern romance and an ultra-modern production style impress Joan Davies

Published on October 27th 2009.

Fireflies at the Lowry Theatre

Nestled in the intimacy of the Lowry’s smaller Quays theatre, the in-house production of Fireflies, a new work written by Kevin Fegan, makes a big impact. It’s billed as an innovative multimedia production – a mix of film, theatre, computer graphics and recorded music.

Multimedia theatre has been done before but rarely on this scale. The screen is immense and powers you into the drama.

Multimedia theatre has been done before but rarely on this scale. The screen is immense and powers you into the drama. It runs continuously, moving between landscape, story illustration, and multi-images, providing a rolling wave of commentary and alternative perspectives on the action, characters and setting.

The story opens with scenes of a northern estate somewhere between Salford and Bolton where two lonely hearts are currently single and sometimes optimistic. The two actors, Naomi Radcliffe and Paul Simpson, also play a number of other people: family, friends, enemies, neighbours and the occasional stranger. Life isn’t all rosy and hardships as well as small triumphs pass across the stage and screen.

There’s a sense of hope running through this drama, linked to the idea of synchronicity. Apparently some fireflies can mate via matching light patterns. Will synchronised experiences and stories serve human lonely hearts in the same way?

Radcliffe and Simpson are tremendous and particularly brave for facing a double exposure; they give a live performance in front of a screen performance. Sometimes they’re in conversation with the on-screen actor (leaving no room for error) and sometimes their on-screen selves commentate on their stage character. The timing is superb. It has to be. Throw a live actor a wrong cue and they’ll cope. Throw a filmed actor a wrong cue and they’ll carry on regardless.

The actors’ on-screen images are huge, with a filmic intensity. At times there are four Radcliffes in front of us – three giant filmed heads and a live, whole actor. Some actors regard film acting and stage acting as completely different crafts but these two have mastered both. Radcliffe’s main character has real spirit while her softer, more reflective side is displayed mainly on screen.

There’s humour too. Some set-piece scenes, like taking your bloke clothes shopping or getting bored with one another while on holiday without the kids, have been done before, but rarely as a live-to-film conversation with the film headshot twice the size of the on-stage partner.

A few plot elements seem thrown in to tick the checklist of electronic modern romance. They’re amusing enough and cleverly presented, but the phone-sex is eventually (and realistically?) unsatisfying. But while many of the ideas have surfaced before, the dialogue is relatively absent of cliché. Of course there’s the usual mix of characters found in any drama about a council estate: the thugs, the drug-dealers, the weird but possibly harmless neighbour, the animal-print-dressed middle-aged woman drunk in the back of a taxi. But this production is about the ordinary resident who hasn’t succumbed to drugs or despair or the notion that they have to escape. They just want ordinary things, ordinary experiences and the chance to try love again.

A great deal of technical expertise has gone into this work. Lighting and sound mixes will have presented unusual problems for the production team but they've passed the test. Dawn Allsopp’s predominantly monochrome design allows film and drama scope to work together to enhance the experience.

Director Noreen Kershaw is well known in Manchester theatres, and has film experience too. It shows. Particularly pleasing is the lack of any ‘look at how clever we are’ displays. It all feels perfectly natural.

With film support from local company Lion Eyes, and probably a fairly extensive rehearsal schedule, this may well have been a costly production. Theatre purists may ask whether it was worth it. Couldn’t the same dramatic impact be achieved without film, with just one medium – theatre? Perhaps. But this particular production is exciting and valuable and had everyone talking about the screenshots. What will happen if future productions are planned? Would recasting necessitate re-filming, and if so, at what expense? This could be an inherent problem with this type of event.

This is part of the Lowry Theatre's No Boundaries series which I believe intends to attract new audiences. It deserves success.

Fireflies – A Love Story Waiting to Happen, Lowry Theatre, Friday 16-Saturday 31 October, evenings 8pm, Wednesday 28 matinee 2pm, Saturday 24 & 31 matinee 3pm. No show on Sundays, www.thelowry.com.

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