The University of Manchester Drama Society’s short play showcase, Two Pairs of Shorts presented four consecutive works of drama at the King’s Arms in Salford on the 27th and 28th of April.
The showcase opened with The Fronts, written by Will Vincent and directed by Jessica Wiehler. In their transatlantic comedy of manners, Wiehler and Vincent effectively recreate the small-minded, insipid atmosphere of a small Louisiana town with an aesthetically pleasing set that depicts a poisonous barren neatness.
Vincent creates compelling characters in the bitterly pragmatic Helen and James Front, played by Agnes Houghton-Boyle and Tom Jones. The play felt slow at times and it was Vincent’s plot decision possibly somewhat exacerbated by a slightly lesser emotional range displayed by some actors which rendered the couple’s decision to have a baby at the end somewhat unlikely and unwelcome.
Jones tackles the sociopathic insincerity of James Front with an exquisite dryness and skilled comic timing, and special mention must go to Christian Hinrichsen who creates the hilariously misogynistic, serious golf-loving Sebastian Donovan with an excellent satirical quality.
The next piece, Please Take a Seat by Marina Jenkins, was a skilfully paced and varied farcical comedy. Jenkins creates the ‘day-in-the-life’ of a hilariously chaotic London STD clinic with a witty script, perfect casting and the strongest ensemble in the showcase.
Clinic receptionist Gemma was positioned upstage, giving her an omniscient perspective and presenting her as a consistent focus. Orla Quilligan gave this role a very human quality, reacting in tandem with the audience with excellently timed eye rolls and sarcastic quips.
Quilligan’s positioning occasionally meant others’ lines were delivered backwards and the seating in the middle often made the stage somewhat cluttered, but perhaps on such a small stage this is inevitable.
Sam Roberts created the greasy slime-ball Sid with amusing and well-observed facial ticks and, most notably, Nick de Jong won the sympathies of the audience with his hilariously doe-eyed, innocent delivery of lines describing his secret career as a porn-star.
Kicking off the second half was Evening, an experimental domestic drama by Lizzie Morris. Vince Curran-French and Eleanor Royle play a married couple, beset by suspicion and resentment. Conceptually interesting, the play seemed strained in delivery.
An argument between the pair ends in a slap, only for the characters to switch places and relive the scene. Arguably an interesting commentary on conventional marital breakdown, I struggled to pin-point Morris’ overarching intention with her piece. If it is a commentary on gender, the writing did not take us to any particular level of gender disparity in order to mark a tonal change when lines were said by the Man or the Woman.
If it is intended as a commentary on domestic violence, the piece appears to normalise a slap within a marital argument rather than highlight its wrongness, and this feels a little problematic. Further, Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love as a framing device seemed to be a somewhat jarring and forced juxtaposition.
The play, however, was enhanced by strong and sophisticated acting from Royle and Curran-French, who rose to the challenge of both difficult scenes and playing older characters.
The final piece, Spilt Milk by Grace Currie, is a troubling story about the effects of mass production on a small family-run dairy farm. A lovely sense of family was created by eminently capable actors Jack Waterman, Chloe Weare, Nick Kettle and Emily Tandy, and there was an especially heartfelt scene between characters John (Waterman) and daughter Clara (Tandy) due to its stillness and unapologetic sentimentality.
However, the character of the Bank Manager, despite being played confidently by Sophie Crawford, seemed to be written rather two-dimensionally and perhaps the threat of the bank would have seemed more imposing had the manager been absent.
Additionally, the pace was often slowed by unnecessary blackouts. For such a short play, swifter transitions or longer and less static scenes would have significantly helped the flow of the story. Despite these issues, the subject matter of the play was evidently very well-researched, or lived in as I discovered, which resulted in some very poignant writing.
Two Pairs of Shorts can be praised for both its experimental nature and diversity. The creative teams behind each piece should be commended for rising to the challenge of creating well-developed characters in clear setting within a brief twenty minutes.
The run of the showcase has ended, but make sure to keep an eye out for the future work of each of these playwrights and director