8055 & The House

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53two, Manchester.

6 February 2019.

Formed from a group of Royal Exchange Young Company alumni, Manchester-based Switch’s aim is to “provide young artists with a platform to showcase their talents, working together to create exciting theatre”. Currently resident at 53two, Switch’s first full production is a double bill of new plays, both written by company members.

James Butterfield’s The House, focuses on a group of twenty-somethings struggling to find purpose in life. Set within a messy flat-share, it initially seems like a very talkative piece about Millennial angst. Flatmates Alf, Debbie and Jonathan are a likeable bunch. They mull over the shortcomings of their situations, roll joints, play board games, drink tea and indulge in some (deliberately) excruciating banter.

Something’s not quite right though. The audience can see another trio of friends coming and going silently on a sofa at an upper level. Unexplained noises emanate from the flat above but the building’s owner has forbidden the friends from approaching the people who live up there. These curiousities multiply into something more unnerving.

Posters for Groundhog Day and Back to the Future adorn the flat walls, and an old-fashioned wooden clock hangs by the kitchen door. Time becomes a fickle thing in this house. A relationship unfolds in reverse, from break-up to first date. People wander in from another period in time. This glitchiness accelerates when Alf breaks the house rules and makes contact with the people upstairs. From then on in everything becomes darker, more menacing and increasingly blurred.

Director Annie Rogers keeps everything on track, creating a gathering sense of unease while keeping the pacing tight. The seven strong cast work incredibly hard to keep it all flowing smoothly through the many changes in scene and tone.

Butterfield’s script is ambitious – combining a nightmarish vision of being trapped in a self-destructive cycle of behaviour, with drug-fuelled soul-searching and sci-fi thriller stylings. It is though trying to say too much about too many things and would benefit from both a trim and a sharper focus.

Oceana Nzene Cage’s 8055 is a clever Kafkaesque take on workplace bureaucracy.  It follows 08 (no names, only numbers) on her first day in a new job. The whole experience is gloriously absurd from beginning to end.

Her new colleagues stave off boredom with colouring books, puzzles and occasionally bursting into song. Meanwhile, 08’s attempts to do something productive with her office time are blocked again and again by increasingly bizarre safety announcements (about the perils of everything from paper cuts to breathing air). Like the previous play, it heads towards troubling destinations but, despite its dystopian feel, 8055 has its tongue firmly in its cheek.

Christopher Brown’s lively direction gives it strong visual appeal, with occasional arresting flashes of bright colours amidst the otherwise gloomy office environment populated by bored workers in dark trouser suits. There are also some ludicrous and eye-catching set pieces including a feverish ‘sneeze drill’, synchronised desktop yoga and a slo-mo mass brawl.

Cage’s writing is sharply funny and confidently distinctive. While it mines a rich seam of humour, there’s enough of an element of believability in many of the scenarios to give it meaningful bite. For instance, 08’s brutal and confrontational job interview may seem extreme, but you don’t have to look too far to hear of similar stories in real life. As one announcement cryptically proclaims, “Don’t take it too seriously, remember to treat it like a game, but most importantly remember it is not a game”.

Ensnared within a desperate and spiralling no-win situation, Brogen Campbell, Rose Walker and Kendal Boardman are hugely enjoyable to watch as the increasingly wide-eyed colleagues funnelled into a farcical frenzy. Zahi Wade injects a wonderful heightened haughtiness as their sadistic manager.

While 8055 and The House are very different in style and substance, interestingly, they do share similar themes – both sets of characters are trapped in toxic environments, there’s a pervasive feeling of powerlessness, and aspiration is absent or stifled.

Fortunately, as their two new productions attest, the members of Switch are not lacking in either ambition or resourcefulness. Already a company worth seeking out, it’s going to be really interesting to see what they do next.

Switch.

53two.

FOUNDation.

Images by Duncan Butcher

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