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30 July 2019.

Twenty Twenty Two, Manchester.

The home you were raised in is being concreted over, any parting words?” is the 13-word provocation that shaped the 8 mini-plays that make-up Bypass – a showcase for new writing from Manchester-based Hung Theatre.

They have form with this format having previously delivered 6 new pieces under the banner of Snowflakes earlier this year. It’s an approach guaranteed to help ticket sales, with the family and friends of the production’s 8 writers, 4 directors and 9 actors no doubt making up a significant proportion of the audience. However, writing something that will hold together and make an impact within just ten minutes is a tough ask.

Adam Cryne and Alexi Papadopoulos get things off to a lively start with Lewis Woodward’s Death Sentence. They’re two cocky estate agents determined to secure tenants for a property. A touch of damp is easily dismissed but what about possible demolition? The pair make a great double act with some slick comic timing and boundless energy. Woodward’s script keeps things simple and on track, and it all flys by.

Cryne and Papadopoulos are impressive and it would be interesting to see what they can do when they aren’t playing shouty bantersauruses. Sadly when they both reappear later in Eleanor Cartmill’s Odds they are called upon to wheel out the same shtick. After an eye-catching opening scenario, (two men on a bridge, one in women’s underwear and the other clutching a sign saying ‘THE END IS NIGH’), the whole thing becomes another case of noisy blokey-back-and-forth. Cartmill’s smart and surprising way with words gets drowned out in the laddish mix, while the constant casual homophobia quickly jars.

In Joe Clegg’s Loved Up unresolved feelings for an ex-boyfriend bleed into a young woman’s grief over the loss of her father, and everything comes to a head one morning. There’s a lot going on and, while the clarity of the writing and direction holds it together, the complexity of the situation and the characters needs more room to breath.

There was further grieving in Send Help by James Butterfield, in which two sisters sort through their deceased mother’s belongings and unpack their feelings about the place where they grew up, and where they go next. Butterfield astutely captures the irregular and irrational rhythms of grief as it ebbs and flows, and passes back and forward between the sisters. Rather than travel in a straight line or aim for a neat conclusion, the piece is aptly episodic, and director Olivia Neilsen’s use of light and darkness accentuates that.

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Within just ten minutes, key details to help the audience navigate their way can sometimes get lost in the rush to establish character, motivation and plot. While I thought Stacey Coleman was playing a care worker visiting a client in Kiedis Quigley’s Box Room, the person next to me was convinced she was a prospective new flatmate come to look at a spare room. However, we could both agree that Alexandra O’Neill’s character was called Zoe. Zoe insists that her visitor names her soon-to-be-born child after her, regardless of whether it is a girl or a boy. She prods at the baby bump with an air of menace. O’Neill’s performance is striking but too often it feels like she is being asked to be weird for the sake of it, and her crowd-pleasing outrageousness goes nowhere. Ultimately it didn’t matter who Zoe’s visitor was as she was reduced to little more than a device, a stooge.

Anchorage explores how it’s possible to be partway through a cruise, surrounded by people, but still feel alone. Elinor Dixon delivers a nicely-judged solo performance as a young woman unable to connect with the people and world around her, but suddenly finding herself reaching out to a member of the ship’s crew. Cat Sharples’ script succinctly and subtly conveys her character’s desperation and alienation, and there’s an underlying sense of panic.

For me, Bypass‘s two stand out plays were Jade Fox’s Sorry & Amends Take The Bus and Neighbourhood Watch by Chloe Weare. Both are directed with thoughtful restraint by Faith Yianni who also manages to create a distinctive mood and feel for each piece within the not inconsiderable restraints of the format.

Fox’s play cleverly recognises the potential for any journey on Greater Manchester’s public transport system to become an unpredictable mini-drama, and so safely held together within that premise her writing kicks loose. On a Stockport-bound bus, two women (presumably the Sorry & Amends of the title) end up talking and bits of their lives spill out. Both seem to be on a mission, one is mulling over a problem, the other prefers action to words. It’s all slightly absurd, at times uproariously so, but never unbelievable. As the two passengers-on-a-mission, Lottie Jones and Kathryn Bland throw themselves into their trip with intrepid (and straight-faced) conviction. Hugely enjoyable, surprisingly intense, and the time to disembark comes way too soon.

Weare’s Neighbourhood Watch closed the showcase. It’s tightly written and wonderfully poetic. Artfully managing to squeeze a love affair and a gradual break up into ten minutes without things ever feeling rushed or forced. Lottie Jones and Lauren Bugg are excellent, infusing their exchanges with a deep sense of longing that’s made all the more intense by the fact they are often expressing their feelings at a distance to one another. It’s paced with real skill and care by Yianni, and Weare’s words weave a touching and tender spell.

Images by F.Digital – Neighbourhood Watch (top), Sorry & Amends Take The Bus (middle), Death Sentence (bottom), Odds (featured).

Hung Theatre.

Greater Manchester Fringe.

Twenty Twenty Two.

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