20th November 2012

Theatrical angst in an age of austerity

Robbie Davidson reviews Theatre Uncut in residence for one night at The Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Two Stars out of Five Stars

Theatre Uncut describes itself as “an international theatrical response to our current state of austerity, both at home and abroad, inviting participants all over the world to stage these unique plays however and wherever they want”. Unfortunately the quality doesn’t quite match the ambition at its staging in Manchester at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

With just fifteen minutes to convey a compelling story and message, the four plays performed on the night demonstrated both the strengths and pitfalls of limiting stage time.

   In the Beginning by Neil Labute was a perfect example of a play with nothing particularly interesting to say. What it did say was far too obvious and told lazily. A conversation between a father and his son who needs cash to pursue his political activism (an Occupy-esque movement) was fleetingly funny but thoroughly disengaging as a piece of theatre.

250 Words by Stef Smith, inspired by a top banker who threw herself off a building earlier in the year, was a little more original in its presentation and ideas  but was let down by weak performances.

The second two plays displayed how a shorter time to convey a message can make for thought provoking theatre and even made me wish that all plays could be this brief. Blondie by Hayley Squires was a frightening but hilarious reflection on society’s obsession with sex and our culture of blame told through an interrogation of a former Prime Minister accused of genocide. Squires’ message was ambiguous and left me uncomfortable- just what a good play should do.

But Spine by Clara Brennan was the crown jewel in the quartet of plays. Bolstered by a fantastic performance by the University of Manchester’s very own, Esme Bayley-Knaggs, the play is a simple recalling of Amy’s experience caring for an elderly lady with dementia whose obsession with books rubs off on the earnest young woman. Brennan shows how the best messages are expressed when neatly wrapped in a touching, character- driven story. Whereas the writing in the other three plays had been let down by the amateur dramatic feel of some of the performances, Bayley-Knaggs’ performance allowed the writing to flourish and the subtle message about the importance of local libraries was clear but not crass.

So whilst it would be fair to say that this particular incarnation of Theatre Uncut was a pretty hit and miss affair, it should not go unnoticed what an impressive project is being undertaken. With similar productions taking place all over the globe, in dozens of different languages, the success of this project relies heavily on the quality of the writing that is produced. If this evening was anything to go by then there is still work to be done, but when done well it’s hugely satisfying theatre.

Theatre Uncut ran on the 14th November at the Anthony Burgess foundation

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