The B Word
The King’s Arms, Salford
From 04 July 2017 to 08 July 2017
Review by Mark Smith
While the Manchester International Festival sprawls across the city on a large scale, several smaller events are popping up throughout this busiest of pre-Edinburgh months. The Greater Manchester Fringe is the umbrella for a great number of these, offering opportunities for new companies and the fringiest of events.
There’s certainly a wonderfully secretive feel to the location for The B Word, a tiny black room upstairs at the King’s Arms, across the corridor from the well-known venue’s main (though still not massive) theatre space.
New writer Ryan Gilmartin’s play, in Grace Cordell’s directorial debut, makes the most of the intimacy of the space to create a chummy, tucked-away feel to the show. On our way into the room, various audience members are selected for a quick frisk down by an unsmiling airport security worker and directed to their seats, of which there are barely more than a dozen.
Into this cosy environment steps Dan, played by writer Ryan Gilmartin. He quickly coaches one of us through the process of scanning bags for liquids, wiring, and other danger signs, plunging us in at the deep end in our roles as newbie co-workers at Manchester Airport.
Dan is matey and clearly in chatty mood, as he introduces us to his own personal world (and, kindly, his doughnuts). He’s on a break with us, backstage in the theatre of airport security. As we get to know him he opens up about what’s on his mind, talking us through his concerns with family, relationships, friends, and the state of the world.
To say that this show is ‘immersive’ is stretching it a bit, given that in essence it’s a conventional fringe-length monologue, albeit with a particular acknowledgement that we’re all in this fiction together—thanks in no small part to Gilmartin’s friendly, blokeish persona (and the aforementioned snacks).
What we have here is an often-amusing character sketch, exploring in fragmentary but largely realist form some Big Questions faced by ‘Millennials’, encompassing prejudice, purpose and place in the world. There are a few clumsier gearshifts in the script, and this is clearly the work of a still-developing writer. But the tone is sweet and generous, and Gilmartin’s performance is warm and likeable.
Mikey Ridley’s sound aptly conjures the background hubbub as well as the occasional repetitive announcements of the airport tannoy system. It mingles well with laughter and buzz from other spaces around the building, echoing the vibrancy of this venue and the Greater Manchester Fringe as a whole. The setting in fact helps to shut us in this world for fifty minutes to give Dan a hearing—aware of but not distracted by the comings and goings outside.
There’s also a splendid sequence about half-way through, in which this solo show becomes a comedy duet, thanks to an uncredited, but hilarious, further performer.
Towards the end there are a few odd missteps, which might be ironed out with further performance and possibly a gentle redraft. Dan’s sudden reference to a journal-like record of favourite quotes is somewhat jarring as a device to drive the narrative to its conclusion and tie together loose ends in the character. As throughout the performance, though, Gilmartin’s ease and gentle humour as a performer shepherd us through his clumsier moments as a writer.
Though the concerns referenced in the production are important and troubling, ‘gentle’ is the impression I took away from it, and it is to Gilmartin’s and Cordell’s credit that they manage to smuggle such weighty issues past us while barely breaking the chatty, cheery tone. A light and self-contained piece of new writing which shows promise for future writing, performance and direction from the pair.