Review of Things That Divide Us at 53two, Manchester.
53two opened the doors to its new home on Watson Street over a year ago. Although the performance space has played host to an increasing number of shows, I was starting to worry that the pressures of managing a building and keeping it afloat financially had resulted in 53two’s own in-house theatre productions taking a back seat to a steady flow of quiz nights, pianoke events and drinks promotions in their sparkly new bar. I should have known better!
Reflecting their commitment to new writing, 53two’s first show in their newly expanded venue is the world premiere of Things That Divide Us by Joshua Chandos.
In Chandos’s play, Kitty and David volunteer within a refugee support project in France. Kitty has been to Calais three times already and she confidently takes on the role of a leader, while David is newly arrived and still learning the ropes. She is a woman of action, unafraid of fighting for a cause or making her voice heard. He is more reflective, and less experienced in the harsh realities of the world.
In the production notes, director Simon Naylor says that it was the depiction of the relationship between the two main characters that drew him to the piece, and I can see why that was. Chandos subtly maps a growing bond between Kitty and David. What starts as something very transactional, Kitty training David up and guiding him through the practicalities of the work they are there to do, gently evolves into something more personal.
Beth Lily-Banks and Callum Sim power the production with their warm, understated, and very relatable performances. There’s an element of opposites attract – Kitty is down-to-earth, David is “posh”, and her quickness to act contrasts with his tendency to reflect on the best approach.
Both however have stuff going on back over the Channel in England – something hinted at by snatches of hurried phones calls. As they get to know more about each another, they reveal details about their backgrounds, but critically they also help each other to make sense of their inner struggles and where they are going in life.
Any play that focuses on the lives of two UK nationals in the middle of the humanitarian crisis on the French coast will need to sensitively balance characters and the wider context.
Chandos’s writing recognises that pitfall. A mantra regularly repeated at the start of each visit to the camps reminds the volunteers (and the audience) that the brutality they will face from the French police during their mission will be fleeting, but it is something that the refugees in Calais must endure daily, along with constant racism and deprivation.
Kitty and David’s conversations constantly reference conditions in the camps and the plight of those they deal with, and David’s initial naivety serves as a useful prism through which to gain more knowledge about the situation.
Some points are powerfully made, particularly that the French police are carrying out their operations on behalf of the UK government, using funding provided by the Home Office.
However, too often real lives are reduced to facts and figures, and attempts to weave in the stories of individual refugees feel too sketchy. Despite the setting, the crisis that brought Kitty and David to Calais feels at too far a remove, off-stage and largely out of sight, and as a result it lacks sufficient impact.
Perhaps alive to that, the production weaves in clips of news reports projected on to the back of the stage, to emphasise the scale of the refugee situation in Europe.
The charity’s base is effectively brought to life in the new space. David Howell’s excellent set creates an authentic backdrop for Kitty and David’s work – with shelves chaotically packed with supplies, rotas on the wall, a brew station and a sign reminding everyone to clean up after themselves. A single fluorescent tube hangs precariously overhead, one element of a surprisingly effective lighting design.
Director Simon Naylor skilfully manages the play’s frequent comings and goings, and the occasional shift in timeframe, making full use of the space and pacing it all perfectly.
He also makes sure that the two thoughtful and nuanced performances from Lily-Banks and Sim shine through. There’s a beautifully delivered scene where Kitty and David share a bottle of wine on a beach during some brief downtime, the glow of the sun on their faces highlighting the growing warmth between them.
Refreshingly, despite some jokey references to Brief Encounter, the play avoids a clichéd ending, and Kitty and David’s relationship develops in unexpected yet satisfying directions.
As their first production in the new space, Things That Divide Us sets out 53two’s stall nicely. Showcasing new writing, with two strong performances at its heart, it’s a confidently put together production that consistently punches above the venue’s weight. Let’s not leave it so long until the next one.
Things That Divide Us runs from 13 September to 1 October 2022 at 53two.
Performance seen on 15 September 2022.
Ticket prices – tickets are £11.50, and there are £2 Unwaged Tickets at every show for those that are currently out of work or receiving any financial support.