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Vignettes – Contact, Manchester

Reviewer: Peter Ruddick

Writers: Alex Keelan, Zoe Iqbal, Maz Hedgehog, Debbie Oates, Lekhani Chirwa and Lindsay Williams

Directors: Kate Colgrave, Gitika Buttoo, Ifeoma Uzo, Bryony Shanahan, Amy Gavin and Ellie Rose

For 45 years, the team at Greater Manchester Rape Crisis (GMRC) have provided a safe space for survivors of abuse to be listened to, to be supported and to be believed. To mark the anniversary, the always brilliant HER Productions has curated one of its regular Vignettes nights in collaboration with the organisation.

For anyone unfamiliar, Vignettes is an evening of six short plays written by local female and non-binary writers. This particular collection has been inspired by the stories of the amazing people who run the sexual violence service. It is a tough but vital, and ultimately inspiring, evening.

Five of the plays are cleverly interlaced with scenes of the first by Alex Keelan: 1978-2023, telling the history of GMRC through each decade it has been in existence.

It is beautifully performed by Joyce Branagh and Ellie Campbell and is the beating heart of the night. Flashes of newspaper headlines through the years cleverly ground the audience in the social context of the time, but also serve as a reminder of just how much further we have to go.

Each time the phone rings we are taken to another of the heart-breaking stories; another of the short plays. It is a clever device but there is probably capacity for a longer piece solely exploring the work of GMRC. The audience fell in love with Ellie Campbell’s Mary and were clearly desperate to know more.

Zoe Iqbal’s Bhaijaan explores the relationship between a young woman of Asian descent (Jessica Kaur) and her brother (Alex Hewitt) who discovers his sister has been raped by her husband. It is intensely powerful and showcases a really important tale.

However, the dialogue feels a little forced and errs on the explanatory. It is perhaps one of the weaker pieces of the night and suffered from some tech issues. However, it comes alive during Kaur’s stunning monologue. It may work better as a one-person performance.

Unsurprisingly, the incredible poet Maz Hedgehog has penned a stunning short play in Burdens. The complex mother and daughter story is rich, deep and truly beautiful. Director Ifeoma Uzo has also brought out some stunning physical acting from Kelise Gordon-Harrison and Krissi Bohn.

Julie Hesmondhalgh puts in the performance of the night during Lifelines by Debbie Oates. You can hear a pin drop and the audience hangs on every word as Yvonne battles her anxiety to answer the phone and channel her own trauma into bravely helping others. It is funny, honest and utterly believable.

A Day in the Life Of by Lekhani Chirwa opens the second act and is an inspirational tale of sisterhood, growth and mentoring. The piece is brilliantly and naturally acted by Alicia Forde and Leah Baskaran with director Amy Baskin weaving in good use of music.

The night ends with Lindsay Williams’ Broken followed by the conclusion of the first play and a coming together of the entire ensemble.

Broken is possibly the most recent of the stories and certainly the most prescient in terms of the current struggles faced by those providing vital services to survivors of sexual abuse.

Lois Mackie is extraordinary in the main role. There are horror movie influences in Ellie Rose’s direction as the walls close in on someone clearly on the edge. Never have the words ‘I’ll be back in the next day’ been so utterly emotional. Stunning.

All in all, this is an important collection of plays, creatively told.

The voice of an 80-year-old caller to the rape crisis helpline is a reminder of what a privilege it must be for the cast and creatives to share these important stories. It is certainly a total privilege to watch.

Runs until 5 October 2023.

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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