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By Tiffany Bowman
Under some old railway archways in Manchester City Centre, a new theatre called 53Two has opened its doors for its very first run of shows. North South Shorts is a series of six short plays, all exploring dysfunctional relationships through monologues and duologues. Each play is around 15 minutes long (excluding “Word on a Wing” which was shorter), there are minimal props, lighting and staging – placing the focus on the performers and the story.
Simon Naylor, Director and Creator of North South Shorts, described the space as “one of the most beautiful places” he has ever seen. He said, “I still look at the brickwork now and wonder if we, with all our hi-Tec machines, could manage to build something that can withstand what those arches do. It’s big, it’s beautiful and most importantly, it’s versatile.”
And North South Shorts is the first production to be put on in this new space.
“North South Shorts was born out of wanting to create an accessible show that wasn’t exclusive to any one region of the country, and one that showcased the work that we hope to present at 53two.” Simon explained. “A recent review said ‘sacrifices props and pomp for raw, honest performance’-absolutely what we want. Theatre can, at times, be a little inaccessible to anyone but the middle class, but we hope to present real theatre that the everyone can watch and enjoy, at an affordable price.”
With tickets priced at £12 (excluding booking fees), 53Two feels like a space that will attract a diverse audience, especially students and young theatre makers. The theatre also offers its space to new writing, and gives emerging actors the opportunity to perform. Matt Hall, who plays Liam in “Painted Arrows” described the venue as “amazing”
“There’s so much potential for its future and I’m pleased to have been a little part of its history – we were the very first actors to step on stage for the very first professional run which is a cool thought!”
“Simon is doing an incredible job of both the venue 53two and his company MAP and I can’t thank him enough for the opportunities it’s given me and continues to give to others! There’s some fantastic stuff happening and it’s only the beginning!”
The night began with “Painted Arrows” – an ambitious piece, written by Joshua Val Martin and directed by Megan Marie Griffith. We meet Liam who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his ex-girlfriend Bridget (Kate Milligan) is moving away to pursue dance. Staggering onstage in an Adidas tracksuit and drinking Carlsberg, Liam is presented to us as a working-class stereotype. However, as the play progresses, the characters become more authentic. The play raises the question of whether we condemn ourselves by trying to gain validation from others, whilst briefly touching on issues such as domestic violence and ambition within working-class communities. Both performers were great in this piece, particularly Matt who managed to get across the complexity of his character. I think this would work better as a longer piece, given that so many themes were touched upon. Social media as a means of validation kept popping up and it would have been great to have seen that explored further. But overall I really enjoyed this piece.
Secondly came Anna Jordan’s play, “Closure” – a monologue directed by Anita Pandolfo. We’re introduced to Eve (Alexandra Jay-Jones) who sits at a table in a restaurant with her unseen ex-partner. Witty but honest, we learn about how their separation has left Eve feeling lonely and unable to move on. Alexandra strikes a bittersweet performance, managing to make us laugh whilst evoking sympathy. Like Liam in “Painted Rainbows,” she feels defined by her partner and in her last moments onstage, she appears solitary and lost without him. Her story comes to an abrupt stop as she blows out the candle on her table, and we are left wondering if Eve will ever be able to find happiness. This piece seemed to gain the most laughs from the audience and worked really well as a short piece.
Next we were presented with “Bark” written by Kellie Smith and directed by Charlotte Peters. Josh (Iain Rodrick Mundell) has called his father, Barry (Matt Aistrup) into the hospital following an accident at work. The writing strikes a perfect balance in terms of serious and light-hearted conversation, flicking between the death of Josh’s Mother and whether Barry should convert Josh’s old room into a study. Throughout the piece, we learn more about their complex relationship. In particular, the twist relating to Josh’s injury reveals a lot about their family background. This piece is a great study of parent/child relationships and how the absence of a parent can cause damage. Both Iain and Matt were good at conveying this in their performances however, the strength of the piece was clearly in the writing, whereby we slowly piece together why their relationship has become so complicated.
Following an interval, we had another play by Anna Jordan. “Staunch” sees two brothers reunited at their Father’s funeral. Whilst Danny (Nick Pearse) has been living the high life in the Philippines with his new family, the caregiving duties of their Father have fallen on younger brother Jamie (Ryan Hutton). Credit has to go to both actors who were convincing as brothers and conveyed a wide range of emotions in their performance. Although this play felt a bit long, we really got to know the characters as they shared anecdotes from their childhood and swapped stories about what they have been up to. It reminded me a little bit of Death at a Funeral, in that it was both funny and tender. Another piece that gained a lot of laughs from the audience.
Next was Joshua Val Martin’s short piece “Word on a Wing” which was a welcome alleviation from the domestic themes of the other plays. A bittersweet comedy directed by Craig Sanders, we are introduced to Angel (James Lewis) who watches the world go by from a cloud and decides to intervene one day. I really liked the premise of this piece so I was disappointed that this was the shortest one of the show. Nevertheless, both performers brought a different energy to the stage, making me immediately like their characters – even the bureaucratic Raz (Clare Cameron) with her lab-like jacket and smart clothes. However, I feel like this piece would have benefited by being a bit longer.
The final play, “Closer to God” was written by Anna Jordan and directed by Kate Colgrave-Pope. This was my favourite piece of the night. We are introduced to two characters, simply named SHE (Nisa Cole) and HE (John Smeathers). They both live in the same tower block on a council estate in South London. The play explores loneliness and ambition through these characters. Both characters have qualities that should make them unlikeable. SHE is brash and loud whilst HE is bigoted and bitter. However, as the story unfolds (told through mirroring monologues), we learn that SHE is a young Mum, having issues with her son’s Father, and HE has recently lost his wife. Despite their different backgrounds, it becomes apparent that these two characters have a lot more in common than originally anticipated. The reason I liked this piece the most was because I warmed to both characters and I believed in their dysfunctional relationship. Both Nisa and John were fantastic in the roles, especially Nisa who was hypnotic as the troubled young woman.
Overall, North South Shorts was an intriguing first show for this new theatre, showing lots of potential. With another “shorts” event coming up, I really hope to see the theatre encouraging new talent in Manchester in the future.
Tiffany Bowman is a writer and theatre maker based in Greater Manchester. So far, her work has appeared in the Royal Exchange Theatre, Three Minute Theatre, Contact Theatre, and Swan Street Studios. Follow her on Twitter @TiffanyZBowman