Oh The Humanity/Once In A House On Fire

Oh The Humanity And Other Good Intentions
4 stars ****
Once In A House On Fire
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

IT’S BEEN A quiet presence on the 2012 Fringe, the first-ever Northern Stage season at St. Stephen’s Centre. Yet there’s been no shortage of respectable audiences for the strong and well-crafted programme of work there; and no show displays that commitment to quality more clearly that the Northern Stage/Soho Theatre co-production of New York writer Will Eno’s Oh The Humanity, playing at St. Stephen’s in the early evening.

On a subtly lit set of five screen doors which challenges the technical capacity of the venue to its limit, actors John Kirk, Tony Bell and Lucy Ellinson move swiftly through an 80-minute programme of five short plays, including two monologues, two two-handers, and one brief piece that involves all three actors. From a struggling New York sports coach delivering an imaginary speech to the press that reveals his inner heartbreak over a broken relationship, through a pair of middle-aged singles trying to compose their profiles for a dating website, to a hopelessly out-of-her-depth airline spokeswoman trying and failing to say the right thing after a fatal crash, his characters all seem lost, their disorientation reflected in the slightly surreal quality of his drama. In the finest piece of writing, The Bully Composition, he even invites us, the audience, to enter into a strange psychic communion with a group of soldiers photographed during the Spanish-American War of 1898, as we too prepare, in the middle of our lives, to have our group image preserved in time by one of the two speakers, an eminent photographer; and everywhere in this five-cornered pattern of shows, there is a sense of exploration, not only of the characters, but of the fragile possibility of communication between characters and audience.

Andrea Ashworth’s Manchester memoir Once In A House On Fire, also at St. Stephen’s, represents a much more familiar kind of northern drama, and is slightly disappointing in the predictability of its content and style. The story revolves around two young sisters growing up in Manchester in the 1980’s, with a series of abusive or unsatisfactory stepdads visited on them by their loving but gullible mother. There’s plenty of Smiths music, a lot of violence, and a real struggle for escape, on the part of the clever older sister, Andy. Yet somehow, the story seems familiar even before it starts; and it offers up enough stereotypes about how life is “grim up north” to get a powerful fire going, if the time ever came to consign some of those well-worn images to the blast-furnace of history.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
pp. 305, 305


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