MATE Productions is known for its large community ensemble pieces, usually staged in the summer before heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe; this year, it was the specially-commissioned Grace and the Sea.
But the Halewood-based company has upped its game considerably in 2014, with new projects in the pipeline that included this successful sell-out run of Jim Cartwright’s modern classic two-hander Two. Turning the Pilgrim pub’s function room into a studio theatre was an ideal choice for a play also set in a pub (this could be one of the year’s trends, after Cathy Crabb’s The Bubbler was performed there back in May).
Rachael Reason and Jake Ryan played the landlady and landlord of your typical British boozer; and, as it transpired, their entire clientele. The clever stage direction makes for a revolving door of weird and wonderful characters – the medallion man with the roving eye; the old lady whose nightly half of stout is the only escape from caring for her housebound husband; the crisp-munching oddballs in the matching bobble hats; the gregarious local whose jolly demeanour hides an insecure domestic abuser.
Two is set in the eighties and MATE keep it there with some nice details, from the comedy wigs to camouflage jackets, the period soundtrack and the little boy left outside with crisps and pop. In those respects, the play shows its age and is a bit of a nostalgia trip. The performers navigate their multiple roles with confidence, and in the confines of the performance space get to break the fourth wall and interact with the front row.
It’s all good fun – or so it might appear. In between the comic customers, over the course of the night the relationship behind the bar is coming to a head, until a final act that turns the whole piece on a dime. Reason and Ryan wring every last drop from the drama and leave barely a dry eye in the house.
Like a good soap, Cartwright’s writing is accessible and spans the emotions, turning the everyday into theatre that really strikes a chord. MATE Studio is a new semi-professional way of working for the company, and its debut production already shows the future is bright.