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BE Festival
Home Manchester at Number One First Street

Julia Schwarzbach in Loops and Breaks Credit: Alex Brenner
Milán Ujvári in From The Waltz To The Mambo Credit: Alex Brenner
Waiting Credit: Alex Brenner
Jamie Wood in Beating McEnroe Credit: Rachel Ferriman

On the surface, this is a sampler of some of the short performances from this year's BE Festival of European performance, originally seen in Birmingham in July. But Home and BE together have turned the sterile atmosphere of an empty office floor into something more welcoming and inclusive.

As the audience enters, the waiting area is filled with furniture from the old Library Theatre scenery stores, with a wide variety of sofas and chairs on which to relax. Music comes live from a guitar vocalist in the corner, and drinks at the bar are just £1.

The shows themselves contain some friendly participation for those willing to join in, and there is even a dinner before the last piece in which audience and performers sit together on long tables to be served sherpherd's pie (or the vegetarian option) and bread rolls.

It's a warm, friendly atmosphere for the performers as well as the spectators and makes this into a sociable event rather than an evening sat in the dark observing and judging the performers' latest work.

As the audience enters the performance space, Jamie Wood, with impressive facial hair, is sat chanting wrapped in green towels throwing tennis balls at the audience. Behind him are pictures of Björn Borg and John McEnroe, and the show, called Beating McEnroe, is about Borg's fifth Wimbledon victory against McEnroe in 1980 and the return match the following year which had the opposite result.

Stand anywhere in Edinburgh in August and you're within spitting distance of a dozen shows about an amusing / charming episode in the performer's childhood; this is one of those, but there isn't a great deal of substance to the story itself. Where it scores highest is in some clever recreations of events using audience members and odd props, but there is a lot of padding and aimless prancing about which adds nothing to the story but amused some in the audience.

From the Waltz to the Mambo is a short but charming solo piece from Hungary, choreographed and performed by Milán Ujvári, in which the performer reads from a tattered old manual on ballroom dance while performing some very impressive moves to accompany the words. Following this, he dances to a crooner version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall".

The attempts at clowning are a bit simplistic compared to the dance, but overall this is a nice little interlude.

Austrian Julia Schwarzbach takes us into the dinner break with Loops and Breaks, which has the most accomplished and well-integrated audience participation. In fact, the audience is a large part of the performance.

Schwarzbach sits at a desk in a suit writing as each of the spectators who took an envelope at the start performs the action on the paper therein, which may be to shout something out, move an item of scenery, do something to the performer or ask the disembodied voice of Herbert (presumably Nic Lloyd, credited as music/DJ), who also prompts the audience where necessary, for the next piece of music, to which Schwarzbach dances.

Schwarzbach is relaxed but charismatic on stage and the whole piece is strangely hypnotic, repeated after envelope swaps until the time limit of 24 minutes is reached but somehow each time having a different result.

Following a chat over the dinner table, Waiting by Mokhallad Rasem of Belgium is a film about waiting. It is a series of vox-pop interviews to camera in different languages with surtitles in English which start as general musings on what waiting means and then become more extended and emotional meditations on waiting for identity papers to arrive, waiting to see family again and waiting for the war to end.

The live performance aspect is three people holding white cloths in front of themselves to make some parts of the projected film stand out away from the wall, which is a striking effect but adds nothing to the experience and is soon forgotten if you are concentrating on what is being said in the film, which is far more interesting.

Overall, it's a pleasant, friendly social event in which you can mix with performers and other spectators and see—and participate in—some interesting new experimental theatre from around the world. At just £15 for a full-priced ticket including dinner and the cheapest bar in Manchester, it's also pretty good value.

Hear BE Festival co-director Mike Tweddle talk about this tour in the BTG podcast.

Reviewer: David Chadderton