Nowadays fringe theatre is a regular feature of the Manchester area. Venues such as The Royal Exchange and The Lowry have their own Studios to stage off-centre productions that might be out of place in their main house and there are pub venues as well as promenade shows that can pop up anywhere.
But it wasn’t always the case. For some years The 24:7 Festival was the main promoter of fringe theatre. This is a weeklong annual series of plays lasting no more than one hour held in non-theatrical venues. It was devised by David Slack as a way of giving Manchester the best fringe elements of the Edinburgh Festival and attracting non-theatregoers by staging productions in unusual venues. This year the 24:7 celebrates a decade of plays.
This anniversary Festival was announced at a launch held in Manchester’s Comedy Store on Thursday night. In 2013 the 24: 7 Festival will run from 19th to 26th July and, as well as the mixture of drama and comedy that you would expect, includes a few surprises. The 11 world premieres include historical and crime dramas and themes addressing aspects of modern society –prejudice, young offenders and obsessions with youth and beauty.
The number of venues at which the plays will be staged has increased. ‘2022NQ’, in the Northern Quarter will host two plays; ‘The Young’ by Abi Hynes and Faro Productions and Louise Monaghan’s ‘My Space’. ‘The Three Minute Theatre’, a boutique theatre within Afflecks Palace, will stage three productions; ‘Temper’ by Richard O’Neill, ‘Bump ‘by Laura Barrow and Brian Marchbank’s ‘No Soft Option’.New Century House, recently listed as a Grade II building, will stage five of the new productions; Thomas Bloor’s ‘Night On The Field of Waterloo’, ‘Away From Home’ by Rob Ward and Martin Jameson, Alice Brockway’s ‘Blunted’, Micheal Jacob’s ‘Daylight Robbery’ and Catherine Manford and Sarah Molyneux’s ‘Billy, The Monster and ME!’
The Festival continues to evolve. ‘Billy, the Monster and ME!’ retains the format of plays suitable for under 12-year olds that was introduced in 2012. The Festival makes a return to their original approach (when productions were hosted in in bars and clubs around the city centre) with a site specific performance, at Manchester Central Community Fire Station, of ‘Manchester’s Burning’ by Rebekah Harrison and Kurt Nikko. Audiences are advised that pyrotechnics will be involved. ‘The Young’ is a devised production – a vague term that is never really explained but hopefully doesn’t mean a committee has put it together. In addition to plays Festival extras include Australian and British writers exploring correspondence in the Digital Age at The Portico Library and rehearsed readings of plays that might feature in the 2014 Festival.
The launch of the Festival was an appropriately warm-hearted affair. David Slack, endearingly struggling with technological jargon and stoically coping with a painful knee that he hardly mentioned, introduced live excerpts from, and stylish filmed previews of, the 11 plays.
The limited number of productions gives 24:7 an intimate feel. It is actually feasible to try and see all of them. The rigorous quality control by Slack and his colleagues ensures that no play ever really disappoints and many dazzle. As with most things in life what you get out of the Festival depends upon what you put in. There is a communal air to the event with the opportunity to mingle with other theatregoers and those who are involved in the actual productions. The Festival centres on its New Century House ‘hub’ (okay café) in which patrons can gradually overcome shyness and make new friends as the Festival progresses.
A degree of endurance is, however, required. As venues are scattered across the city anyone tempted to squeeze in as many shows as possible has to be in shape to jog around the city and stagger breathlessly into the venue gasping ‘One please…’
A welcome announcement at the launch was that, in addition to ongoing support from regular sponsors The Co-operative, Arts Council England and Manchester City Council have made funding available to see the Festival through to 2014 so at least quality fringe drama is assured for the immediate future.