Manchester Theatre Awards

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Contact Compacts #3

Various
Pull Your Finger Out Productions
The Contact Theatre, Manchester
25 September 2014 to 27 September 2014

Contact Compacts #3 is the third in a series comprising 15-minute plays from existing and emerging North West playwrights. It is a startling practical demonstration of what can be achieved in the theatre with minimal resources but maximum imagination covering comedy, drama, dance, mime, monologues and even a thriller. The rough and ready authenticity is apparent before the plays begin as they are staged not in either of the performance spaces at The Contact Theatre but in the foyer, which imposes limited sightlines and environmental distractions; the latter actually become a feature of the closing play.

Dark comedy ‘Celebrity Death Pool’ by Dominic David Burgess is a strong opener. Gary (John Weaver) is a syndicate member betting on which celebrity will be the next to die and decides to improve his chances of winning by bumping off Z-list celebrity Hugh (Hylton Collins). Comedy is very hard to achieve in a short format but Burgess’s script is more substantial than just a sketch and shows potential for further development. Director Joe Mellor gives a varied range of comedy techniques from cruel to broad humour and Weaver and Collins are an excellent pair of antagonists.

‘Hallelujah’ by Tamra Smith is a complete contrast. Rather than use a conventional narrative format Smith’s script illustrates the effect that abuse has upon a nameless woman (Susan Jayne Robinson) whose suffering is so extreme she relates to Christ to the extent she believes she is his reincarnation. The fractured framework is an excellent reflection of a damaged mind but, despite an extraordinarily committed performance from Robinson, makes it difficult to form an emotional connection. Director Megan Marie Griffith creates an ambitious production utilising sound effects, and even elements of mime and dance to successfully communicate the horrific effects of abuse. 

Writer Gareth George struggles to find anything new to say on the theme of a jaded superstar in ‘Famous for 15 Minutes’. There is a fine subversion of expectations but this is offset by an overall lack of imagination and the staging by director Matt Hassall is disappointingly static.

A real surprise is the inclusion of a thriller. Sean Mason’s gripping examination of the politics of betrayal ‘Cream Tea’ is a great success with potential for expansion. The play benefits from excellent performances from an understated John Smeathers as an urbane and self-aware spymaster and a sweetly gentle interpretation from Sofi-Jo Bennett as one of his naïve agents. Holly Mazur’s direction moves the action from cold war Europe to the present day seamlessly and with cinematic speed.

Louise North examines the power of storytelling with a series of monologues illustrating how telling their tales helps a mother cope with grief and an addict recover from withdrawal before concluding with a more light-hearted tale from a commuter. ‘Wings’ is beautifully written and the performances are excellent but the lack of a discernable connection between the stories brings an artificial atmosphere as if you are watching an impeccable writing exercise rather than a cohesive play.

The evening concludes in crowd-pleasing style with Elliot Hughes’s satire ‘Boxes’ that dares to challenge the validity of political theatre. Actors Julie Burrow and Frazer Hammill get a great reception from the audience as a pair of worthy but clueless luvvies confronted with the reality of the workplace. The irreverent tone of the writing is matched by Ruby Thompson’s cheeky direction creating a workplace in which literal notes from above descend upon both the cast and audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham