24:7 Theatre Festival
Sacha's Hotel, Manchester
Sherica writer Ian Winterton has suffered some good-natured ribbing from others in the festival for constantly changing the script during the run, but to monitor the play in performance and make improvements based on what is working in front of an audience is surely the best use of a showcase festival such as this and the sign of a writer committed to his craft, provided that the actors are able to keep up with the changes.
The play opens with Michael in the room of prostitute Sherica, rather nervous as he comes out with the great line, "This isn’t me. I don’t visit prostitutes. For God’s sake – I read the Guardian!". Michael, it turns out, is a teacher married to art teacher Holly at a school that has had to widen its admissions policy since becoming an academy, and Sherica is really Katie, sister and guardian to Natalie, a problem pupil at Michael and Holly's school. Natalie gets called names by Douglas, son of a Conservative MP with a chip on his shoulder about having to now mix with the lower classes, and when Douglas gets a clue about what Katie does, he suddenly has power over a few people.
I saw the last performance of this play at 24:7, and by this point the script and production were tight and compelling. The pace overall is quick to carry you along with the, at times, thriller-like plot, but there is also a superb use of long pauses that really draws you in. And while on the whole there is no way it would normally be categorised as a comedy, looking back there were a lot of very funny moments—real laugh-out-loud lines and situations. If there is a flaw it is that the ending comes rather suddenly and leaves a few too many loose ends, but then a play that leaves you wanting more isn't necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps Sherica 2 will follow next year.
Director Trevor MacFarlane has done a great job but he also has an excellent cast without any weak links. Oliver Devoti gives a wonderfully-rounded performance as Michael, often caught like a rabbit in the headlights both for comic and for tragic effect, as does Ruth Middleton with a Sherica / Katie who comes across as intelligent and devoted but not articulate. Nicola Stebbings is totally convincing as difficult schoolgirl Natalie, as is William Hutchby in a very promising professional debut as Douglas. Katy Slater returns to 24:7 after her appearance in last year's Islanders with a great portrayal of Holly, and the cast is completed by festival director David Slack who gives deputy head Gregory Pope just the right level of pomposity.
This is a superb piece of theatre that raises lots of issues in an intelligent way, has a solid, compelling plot and has some really well-written comedy in one neat little package. It may have finished at 24:7 but there is still chance to catch it in Edinburgh where it plays at Paradise in The Vault from 8 to 29 August.
Reviewer: David Chadderton