Presented by The Pensive Federation

Now in its fifth year, The Significant Other Festival is a welcome showcase of both new and experienced North West talent: ten two-handed plays lasting ten minutes each, whose characters are in some kind of relationship, be it familial, romantic or otherwise. Ten writers, seven directors, twenty actors. And two chairs. Thrown in this year was an object, given to each team to build their play around.

The standard was high, with all of the plays having something to recommend them. Audibility of some dialogue as spoken was a problem for a few of the actors. 53Two has a studio sized space with the height of the railway arch it is, and it takes particular effort and skill to pitch voice projection accordingly.

In no particular order the most successful for me were:

Blu-Ray Written by Paul Holiday, directed by Sophie Flack.
Diana Atkins and Hayley Thompson are excellent as sisters reacting in markedly different ways to their mother’s recent death and realising that a particular enduring family ritual has been pointless all along. The play sends the sisters on quite a journey considering its short running time and the actors invest this with great subtlety and truth. Atkins is particularly memorable as the testy Chloe, whose grief has left her trapped in obsessive compulsive behaviour and a monstrous dressing gown.

Ring Also directed by Sophie Flack, written by Drew Tosh is a deftly handled, semi-absurd look at jealousy between long-term partners Vicki and Jo, in which the ‘other woman’ Suzy is actually a goldfish. Deborah Sekibo makes Vicky the goldfish-fancier extremely likeable where the character might have been too unsympathetic. As broody-but-in-denial Jo, Kim Burnett is quietly heartbreaking. Flack and Tosh trust their actors to convey a lot more onstage than is spelled out in the dialogue and it’s a well-written piece that never feels rushed in spite of the need to stay funny whilst covering a remarkable amount of emotional ground.

Life Size Cardboard Cut-Out Written by Claire Elshaw, Directed by Sushil Chudasama sees old friends Iris and Lola waiting in a secret, secluded location for a stranger to arrive. Time and technology have changed their relationship: Lola is obsessed with posting every aspect of her life online while Iris has become a deeply paranoid conspiracy theorist who yearns to live off-grid. Both women have been left lonely by the rise of social media: one by embracing, the other by rejecting. If they can find a happy middle ground, will their friendship be saved? Social media and the internet are easy targets for comedy and in truth, this has little that’s fresh to say on the subject although what it says, it says well. Where it succeeds is the accurate and engaging portrayal of an old friendship in crisis, both in the writing and in thoughtfully characterised performances from Caroline Wagstaffe and Alexandra Maxwell. Initially it seems unlikely that two such opposite personalities could be close, which is why it’s so effective as a character study. The craft of the writer is most evident in the ending, which intrigues about what happens next while still offering satisfying closure.

Balloon Written by Nick Maynard, Directed by Craig Sanders is an uncomfortable watch in which a man (Michael Loftus) dumps his partner (James Markham) via a helium balloon bearing the word Sorry! What follows is a relentless, vicious character assassination, successfully played for laughs. Which is just as well. Loftus has an excellent, resonant voice although characterisation is not the strong point in this script. The two unnamed men are a means to an end, namely the piling on of insults and betrayals to near unbearable levels. As a snappy piece of voyeuristic embarrassment comedy, it’s all too successful.

If that play was all about the consequences of too much honesty then Shirt (Written by Matthew Smith, Directed by Jodi E Burgess) focuses on lies and pretensions. Set in an art gallery out of hours, it challenges the audience to piece together the relationship between Nina and Floyd, both of whom begin the play by saying anything but what’s really on their mind. They don’t use their real accents either, so there’s a clear dramatic turning point when they decide to trust each other enough to be themselves. It’s written with a light touch and never quite makes its point as a result but it serves as an ideal platform for actors Mark Newsome and Nuala Maguire who are adept at wrong-footing the audience as well as their characters. They convey a wilfully obscure relationship in ways that are unexpectedly enjoyable to watch.

Marbles Written by Jayne Edwards, Directed by Neil J Byden finds childhood friends Fern and Grace waiting by a stage door in an alleyway to catch a glimpse of their enduring idol after a show for which neither could get a ticket. There’s a Victoria Wood-style poignancy to this play, particularly in the characters’ increasing realisation that they have grown apart over time. Gemma Hepworth plays Grace on the warm side of crazily optimistic in deliberate contrast to Felicity Walsh‘s charity worker Fern, whose eyes are only too open to the unhappy realities of life. Both actors are impressive, making the most of a script that teases big emotional nuances out of the smallest remark and most inconsequential detail. It’s beautifully done on all levels, with Fern and Grace rediscovering their closeness in a happy ending that manages to avoid tweeness by being played for real.

Panties Written by Rachel McMurray, Directed by Coco Creme is the best of the ten plays and the one that most deserves to be seen again in a longer form – although it works brilliantly as it is. Best friends Lucy and Clare come home in high spirits from a night out, setting a tone of raucous dirty comedy. It’s the sustained and imperceptible shift in that tone which sets this apart: by the end this has become something quite different. It ends in a dark, angry place and has a lot to say about hypocrisy and sexual politics in 2017. It’s all said very naturally too, without lecturing or polemic. Elise Taylor and Charlie Young do justice to the writing, giving magnificent performances of women whose differences, damages and resentments can’t stay glossed over any more. Exceptional work, and startling in its power.

Seen 22nd April 2017

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