Review: Oh, The Humanity And Other Good Intentions/Once In A House On Fire Northern Stage at St Stephen’s (Venue 73)

In Oh, The Humanity& five short plays with three actors explore the limits of communication
In Oh, The Humanity& five short plays with three actors explore the limits of communication
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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 than 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 that 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.

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 1980s, with a series of abusive or unsatisfactory stepfathers 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.

Oh The Humanity… until today, 6:40pm. Once In A House On Fire until today, 2:40pm.