I’ll be honest from the off, it’s the course I’d like and hope to do and so it was slightly surreal but incredibly nice to be asked to this closed showcase and evening of short plays written by University of Manchester MA Playwrights, performed by Manchester-based actors.
So far so my bag.
I was advised that each play was written in response to the playwrights’ first semester of teaching, in which they were tutored by award-winning playwright Chloe Moss. In these creative seminars, students were encouraged to think about how ‘form’ and ‘structure’ can be manipulated and used innovatively, before working collaboratively to write their own short plays.
First up we had The Slaughterbrute, written and directed by Matthew Skelton.
“Three soldiers deep under the earth and sea, find themselves fighting each other and morality in a bitter bid for survival under tyranny.”
What we had here was in the realms of French farce meets sci-fi.
A brilliant sub-genre to my mind.
With efficient and clever use of lighting and sound to set the scene, we see the plot twist and turn as a test by the Commander (Ferdinand Ray) to see if a soldier in training would turn traitor if tempted, lead to a fatal consequence. Turns out ‘Jack’ (Harry Bloor) was such an anti-traitor that he murdered the Commander as a traitor.
So far, so ‘oops’. But then whilst Jack had passed the final test, the Chaplain (Rory Calland) regretfully informs him that penalty for killing a Commander was execution.
What followed was a lesson in mind-bending moral quandaries.
I passed the test, I’m not a traitor.
I killed who I thought was a traitor.
Yes. But he was pretending. You killed a Commander so you must be killed.
But he presented as a traitor.
So I very much so passed the test.
Yes but also in doing so you failed the biggest.
(Please note I’m heavily paraphrasing the more sophisticated actual dialogue for reasons of failing memory but you get the general idea).
And so round and round and round.
More twists followed as Jack and the Chaplain played cat and mouse to seek a solution where both came through alive.
With smart, rhythmic, poetic dialogue and double twists delivered with a comic edge, the play placed us in a dystopian world but kept it real with a debate over when if ‘doing the right thing’ incidentally leads to a wrong thing, which act trumps the other and in the end is it really just about who’s left standing, the rights or wrongs of it all irrelevant?
(And is that sentence of mine so long it’s practically offensive?)
A literal change of scene and the second play, The Footstool, entered stage right. Written by Liam High and directed by Judi Amate…
“When their grandfather, Carl, suffers a heart attack, estranged brothers Phillip and Peter find themselves reunited after 15 years, when Peter ran away from home. So much of their lives have changed but can the brothers move beyond their past differences and mend their wounds with Carl before it’s too late? The Footstool is an exploration of co-dependent and toxic relationships, intergenerational masculinity and the possibility of forgiveness.”
There are some shorts that where quite a lot can be fit into just a snapshot.
In 20 minutes, we had the decline and perhaps/perhaps not death of a grandfather, the arrival of a long lost brother and reconciliation bridging 15 years’ estrangement.
It was a play of two halves and three relationship dynamics. The first half introduced a comedy performance by Rory Calland as the grandfather, Carl, worthy of Wilfred Bramble. Yes he was dying but he was funny.
The knowledge of the return of the runaway grandson, Peter, was enough to drive Carl to another heart attack. Carl appeared to be the reason Peter left.
And the return of the prodigal twin brother, Peter, was nearly enough to send Phillip, into a metaphorical heart attack.
Peter had abandoned Phillip when he left. But equally Phillip had abandoned Peter by not joining him. Joint resentment on both sides.
Peter used to get Phillip to crouch on the floor to be his footstool.
Oof, we thought.
Phillip, turns out, actually liked this. It was their connection. They didn’t have a secret language but they had an intriguing shared memory of the womb where one grabbed the other’s foot and never wanted to let go.
I had so many questions, can one twin born mere minutes before the other be enough to create a power imbalance? Create a hierarchy in dominance? A theme of abandonment?
I was, actually, momentarily distracted by aggressively trying to remember being in the womb, I’m so competitive…I did remember throwing an iron at my dad though, whilst still in nappies.
Ladies and Gentlemen? Me.
Is the perfect short, one with a neat and tied up in a bow conclusion or one that leaves you wanting more.And is the latter a good thing if you’re not going to get that next instalment? I think so if there’s resolution within the first.
What ties all the plays together is a resolution in the short term, but with a triggered imaginary for what could come next.
In my fantasy, Carl survives his second heart attack to whinge and whine another day, with long enough for the three to come together to thrash out the abuse which one twin undertook, which of the three relationships in play can survive and which should be put out to pasture and consigned to the past?
And I mean that as a compliment.
Short break between shorts, and straight into the energetic Why I Didn’t, written by Imogen Chillington, and co-directed along with Lauren Ellis-Stretch.
“A young woman learning how to exist as an adult in a world that doesn’t want to make space for her. Processing her first break up and trying to understand the disaster that is ‘modern’ dating, ‘I’ starts to understand how her experiences impact and change her and how to survive trauma.”
I think maybe the excellent Megan Keaveny, as ‘I’, should perform this annually to freshers as a cautionary tale.
The monologue was heartbreaking and frustrating in equal measure. And I mean this as high praise. There but for the grace of god goes I, as…well ‘I’ innocently and naively justifies to herself poor behaviour by an ex, poor behaviour by a current and frankly poor behaviour by ‘friends’.
Like a protective older sister (ok technically I could be ‘I’s’ mother (technically), you wanted to seek him out and tell him where to get off.
And as ‘I’ had a slow realisation that poor behaviour was a great deal more sinister, that poor behaviour accounted to date rape (actually let’s just call it rape), you wanted to hunt him down and, well…
Thoughts of ‘ ah bless her’ and ‘you daft lass’ turned to ‘help her’.
A powerful message and energetic yet subtle performance (seemingly an oxymoronic statement but true), with a witty script that knew when and how to change tack and tone, whilst staying true to the character.
We saw a happy, funny, unlucky-in-love girl who we laughed with in da club, as she scrolled through tinder, unravel before our eyes, taking our emotions on a roller coaster ride.
And with little time to recover, our final short of the evening; In Limbo, written by Judi Amato and directed by Liam High.
“Sophie is dead. Probably. She thinks. How could the happiest time of her life turn to this? A play about the darkest sides of motherhood, In Limbo follows Connor (Kai Ross) and Sophie (Madeleine Healey) as they joyfully prepare for the arrival of their baby – and the reality of early parenthood and post-partum depression.”
This was a cleverly constructed tale told through a non-linear timeline, which created a powerful impact (damn you Short Play Showcase, my mind’s been shot to shit in under two hours).
Beautifully acted we jump between the extremes of a couple, clearly in love and with an excellent line, may I say, of ‘bantz’, from the excited parents-to-be to broken down parents-realised.
The size of the bump providing the immediate visual signpost to where we’re at on the timeline, we’re seeing a loving couple taking time out with some reluctance to leave the baby, to pregnant couple enjoying discussing names, to mother frantically imagining hearing the baby cry (excellent use of sound to cause a mis-step in the audience’s perception of reality) to an unravelling of a mother’s mind, a terrified father developing a reluctant but real mistrust of what she might do, infidelity and a breakdown in trust on both sides.
It was a deep-dive exploration into mental health and relationships, with believable dialogue and performances, cleverly portrayed with a manipulation of time that for me landed well in helping to portray the wildly conflicting emotions at play.
And so the metaphorical curtain came down on the showcase (a second one was to follow the next evening) and now must come down on my blog post, which to say considering the subject matter, perhaps wins the award for longest yet.
Some wonderful and exciting talent on show, providing firm reassurance that the future (and indeed, present) of the Manchester arts scene is safe in the hands of some wonderful creatives.
I look forward to seeing their future work.
Now where is that prospectus…