The bustling Manchester fringe theatre scene, once dominated by the much-missed 24:7 Theatre Festival, now seems to be centred mostly on Hope Mill Theatre and 53two, although several other small venues also play a part, especially during the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.
Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill with Aria Entertainment provided the high production values we have come to expect from them for its production of The Toyboy Diaries, but the script of tired old gags and adolescent innuendo really wasn't worth the effort. However, Spring Awakening was another matter, with a talented and enthusiastic, if largely inexperienced, cast who brought out the frustrated adolescent energy of the rock musical and of Wedekind's original play.
A rare revival of Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love worked well with an intimate staging and featured two exceptionally good central performances from Kelly Price and Felix Moss. Hope Mill finished the year with an impressive staging of Putting It Together with a score of songs from various Sondheim musicals.
Hope Mill also hosted some interesting theatre from other companies. Renny Krupinski's D'Eon was an incredibly ambitious staging of a little-known story from 18th-century France with a remarkable central performance from Kaitlin Howard. There was so much detail to the writing, the staging, the fight sequences, the music and every other aspect of this production that it seemed such a shame that it was all over in less than a week. Surely this must get a revival or be picked up by one of the bigger theatre companies.
The revival of Philip Ridley's Vincent River featuring Joyce Branagh and Dominic Holmes was another gripping piece of theatre. Play With Fire managed to grab the UK première of a play originally directed off-Broadway by Ethan Hawke, but it was obvious why West End producers weren't queuing up to stage Things We Want, which I described as "an '80s (possibly even '50s) US sitcom with added swearing and pretensions to a depth and profundity that it never achieves." An all-female Romeo and Juliet may have been far from perfect but it was full of youthful energy and explosive emotion and so it worked quite well.
The only productions I saw at 53two this year were the two JB Shorts collections, now impressively up to number 20 of their biannual evenings of short plays. They are always a mixed bag, but there were some really strong pieces in both JB Shorts 19 and JB Shorts 20, the latter celebrating the anniversary by featuring a couple of pieces that followed on from previous Shorts.