Bridging the Gap
Jim Cartwright, Chris Hoyle, Charlotte Keatley, Ian Kershaw, Sarah McDonald Hughes, Ian Puleston-Davies, Punam Ramchurn, Simon Stephens
The Gap Theatre Project
Hallé St Peter's
Former Library Theatre artistic director Chris Honer took to the stage before the performances to explain that the gap being bridged is that between the fringe and studio theatres and the main stages to provide small- to mid-scale venues for new writing, something provided in London by theatres such as the Arcola and the Bush.
This ACE-funded project has attempted to fill that missing layer by asking eight writers with a north west connection to write new short plays on the theme of "the gap".
Punam Ramchurn's Zilla kicks off in a pacey piece directed by Joyce Branagh that starts with Romani (Rina Mahoney), clearly suffering from mental health issues, being questioned by a Big Brother-style disembodied voice. Each time she removes a layer of costume, we jump back in time to trace the root of her problems in her childhood.
It's a nice little piece that manages to make the old story-told-backwards idea work well with an impressive central performance and good support from Bhawna Bhawsar and John Weaver as every other character.
Last week, her Only Football was the highlight of By Far the Greatest Team at The Lowry; this week, Sarah McDonald Hughes's Thigh Gap directed by Justine Potter provides a perfect vehicle for Nisa Cole's incredible solo performance.
Cole is Chloe, who, while her parents argue downstairs, has secretly built up a very successful web presence on YouTube and Instagram giving beauty tips as Real Girl. It's a beautifully written and performed piece that is both funny and moving.
Broken Bridge by Chris Hoyle, directed by Martha Simon, sees Jamie Samuel trying to talk John Weaver's potential suicide down from a bridge while Kimberly Hart-Simpson's drug addict heckles him and films him on her 'phone. There are some interesting moments, but it isn't as polished as the other plays and the twist at the end isn't entirely unexpected or original.
Ian Puleston-Davies takes us to the interval with White Man Overbite directed by Stefan Escreet. Simeon Truby is an ex-Coronation Street actor approaching 50 but still going out on the pull with his much-younger mates, Gareth Cassidy (a writer for Emmerdale) and Jamie Samuel. He's decided it's time for him to embrace middle age and become a responsible adult.
Declan Wilson is the plastic surgeon whom he consults about breast reduction, and Nisa Cole and Kimberly Hart-Simpson are the girls they pick up in a club. It's a very funny piece, even for those of us in the audience who weren't soap actors.
Simon Stephens brings us back from the bar with The Gap, in which Laura Elsworthy and Andrew Sheridan meet up on a park bench, dancing around the subject of something that happened in their past.
It turns out they last met 59 years ago when she left him for another. It's a poignant, moving little piece that is actually strengthened by the fact that they last met when nearer to the ages of the actors playing them, who both impress.
Ian Kershaw's Talking Down, directed by Liz Stephenson, is another solo performance and another play about talking a suicidal person from a bridge, but, even with Julie Hesmondhalgh's skilled delivery, it comes across as more literary than dramatic, like someone reading out a short story.
Charlotte Keatley's I Am Janet, directed by David Fleeshman, features Eithne Browne as the titular hospital patient, an old woman at the end of her life unable to communicate more than a few gasps and grunts to the nurses and doctor (Sandra Cole, Rachel Priest and Declan Wilson).
However she is able to speak perfectly normally to the audience, so we learn that this frail old woman is a former headteacher and magistrate and the hospital staff misunderstand her every utterance. Another very nice little piece.
Finally, Gaps by Jim Cartwright, directed by Anthony Banks, sees the reunion of Karen Henthorn's Corral and Matthew Kelly's Walter as the tell their story to separate interviewers.
In '60s Soho, Corral was on the game and Walter assisted her, allowing through only the higher class clients. Now, years after they last met, she is in a Council-run old people's home, but one of her old clients Vince McGinty—"bygone star of stage and screen"—gets back in touch, and she wants Walter to assist again.
This is a perfect marriage of comic writing and great comedy performers that sends the audience out happy with some very big laughs.
This is a very impressive start to a worthwhile new project of which I hope we will see much more in the future.
Reviewer: David Chadderton