You might not realise it but Manchester has a thriving fringe theatre scene that stretches right across the city. Often only running for a short period to limited audiences, the Library Theatre has brought some of the successful, different and unusual productions back for the re:play festival at The Lowry.
Monkeywood Theatre had a very successful 2012 as their adaptation of Once in a House on Fire traveled to Edinburgh. Another hit was Stars are Fire, a tender portrait of a fractured family torn apart by the death of a mother and wife. Widower Neil moves his teenage daughter back to his home in Northumberland. But daughter Carly is determined to move back to Manchester and an emotional tug-of-war begins with cousin Lou caught in the middle.
A simple enough story, Stars Are Fire has at its heart an aggressively touching performance from newcomer Emma Clarke as Carly. Clarke transcends a script that leaves her stroppy teenager rather clichéd and makes the audience sympathize with her raw and open grief.
Steven Hillman gives a solid performance as the increasingly frustrated Neil. Completely lacking in understanding of his wayward daughter, Neil becomes more and more hard and angry in some tense scenes. Director Liz Postlethwaite channels this anger into sequences that play out in complete silence. An uncomfortable dinner plays out silently but with impressive chemistry between the two leads that speaks volumes. The central trio of tender performances keep things interesting, especially Richie Gibson’s well-meaning and understated Lou whose own grief at his loss is evident a decade on.
The contrast between the alluring lights of the city and the windswept Northumberland coastline are as jarring as some the changes in tone. Slow burning, the flashpoint moments when emotions boil over sometimes lack the depth required to truly appreciate the relationship between father and daughter. Although totally believable, the relationship between them, emphasized by the catty and illogical remarks, suffers from clichés and the intensity a smaller venue may afford to their relationship ebbs away in the larger Lowry Studio.
At the other end of the spectrum, is Hidden, a slick and stylish two-hander written by and starring Laura Lindsay and Peter Carruthers and the first production from Black Toffee. Hilariously absurd, it is a very modern and very snappy look at the tangled web of 6 seemingly unconnected people.
Lindsay and Carruthers effortlessly switch from character to character in exchanges that are part-monologue, part-comedy. Littered with observational one-liners, each character has their own distinct voice. From flirty and desperate checkout girl Claire through to James’ erotic encounter with a girl on a train, the pair are clearly having a ball toying with these characters.
Lindsay’s strongly defined women strike a chord with the audience as everything from weight to the indignity of weeing on a pregnancy test is discussed in frank detail. By contrast, Carruthers male characters play it for laughs; they are more theatrical in style and didn’t strike the same chord.
But the fun is in the rapport the characters strike up with the audience – you almost feel like you could cheer them on from your seat. The real enjoyment, without spoiling any of the surprises, is in exploring how these characters are connected to each other. Howls of laughter were evident from an audience lapping the chaos up.
Harri Chambers’ catchy soundtrack binds these connections together, and the moving set keeps things fresh without being distracting. Edgy, funny and uniquely different, Hidden is thoroughly enjoyable and a competent and coherent debut from Lindsay and Carruthers.
You can see the final performances of Stars Are Fire and Hidden this Saturday 19 Jan at The Lowry as part of re:play festival. re:play will also include the highly recommended ‘The Bubbler’ from Monday.